The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden

The world ends with fireworks and a pop concert, as we’ve come to expect.  South Africa, and particularly the southeast coast city of  Port Elizabeth has tried to move beyond Apartheid, beyond the poverty of global south post-colonialism, but time has a long memory and more short-lived humans are often destined to repeat history, despite all good intentions otherwise.  Because the problem with good intentions is the secrets every person hides, and for some, those secrets can kill.

The Prey of Gods, while it has an apocalyptic feel, is a novel of new beginnings, wonder, and family.  All the main characters have both something to hide, and must work to move past whatever secrets keep them in a place of darkness or fear.  There are, of course, villains, but even they are driven by a history written when the world was still young, and can’t help themselves.  This is where the novel excels, in fact, taking a mythologized history and literalizing it to create a speculative future.  The gods lived, died, and are now reborn.  What humanity does in response what drives the story.

The large cast of characters in this novel makes it difficult to pin down the driving plot, however it is Muzi’s desire to live a life outside the shadow of his larger-than-life grandfater, Stoker’s desire to live a life free of lies of identity and personality, and Nomvula’s desire to have a mother who is more than a shell of a person, to have someone in her life who really cares about her, that sets the world on fire and pushes the story to its inevitable conclusion.  Throw in a not-so-young-anymore pop diva who remade herself in the image of a woman who never knows fear or pain, a goddess of death determined to take over the world, and a drug dealer with a penchant for the new, and you’ve got the kind of volatile situation that leads to the birth of artificial intelligence and a new species of sentient robots, as well as genetically engineered extinct animal hybrids on the loose.

The Prey of Gods is a buzz-saw of a novel, because it manages to squeeze so much into so few pages, and although the second third of the story drags just a little with the necessity of pushing so many character viewpoints into a short period of chaotic time, there’s plenty still to chew on when the smoke clears.  Overall this novel is a great debut and positive outlook for the future of speculative fiction.

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Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter

The future is here and all the social progress we could ever have hoped for has arrived, nations are working together, and they are sending humanity to the stars.  PhD candidate Reggie Straifer has discovered an odd star, hundreds of light years away, and somehow managed to convince the powers that be to devote untold resources to sending humans out to study it, using a subdimensional drive that allows ships to travel much faster than the speed of light.  A hundred odd years of space travel for the convoy will be over 2,000 years for those back home, but that’s how progress happens–by slow leaps and bounds.

This book, though it’s been compared to Arthur C. Clarke (whom I’ve not read a scrap of) reminded me most of Emma Newman’s recent work in Planetfall and After Atlas, all three novels being confident enough in their storytelling to move beyond the how of interstellar travel to the who–who goes, who stays, and what happens to them in the meantime.  The sociological impact of putting a 10,000 clones on a nine-ship convoy heading to an abnormal star is what’s really at stake in Noumenon–an aptly titled novel in many ways, not least of which because it is a novel of speculation.  We’ll never know what could happen in a century ship until it does, but taking a look back at human history gives us a pretty good idea of what could.

Individually, Noumenon is told in a series of vignette chapters which skip forward in time, sometimes featuring different versions of the same clone, sometimes showing a different perspective altogether.  Each person was chosen for the mission based not only on intellectual capabilities, but their ability to pass a series of psychological checks that indicate they will have the necessary empathy and emotional stability to make the mission a success.  In many ways, Noumenon is the closed room of human development, a mystery that won’t be solved until the mission is over and their findings disseminated to the future owners of earth.

The stories told in Noumenon are by turns inspiring, comical, heartbreaking, and, in the end, cathartic.  Though I was occasionally unsure of some representations of injustice and racial or ethnic identities, this novel mostly lived up to its intentions, presenting a thoughtful look at what could be, and that which can never be fully understood about humanity.

It Takes Two: Socially Critical SFF

Today on It Takes Two we’re going to talk about two recent novels which are, from the outside, very different–one is a second world fantasy with characters who are able to manipulate the mineral makeup of the earth upon which they live, while the other is a near-future science fiction story about clones going forth in a generation ship to investigate a strange, recently-discovered star–but which keep coming back to similar commentaries about the current state of our world, and in particular the United States.

I’m talking, of course, about N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, first in her Broken Earth trilogy, and Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon.  Now, I understand that Noumenon is a relatively new release, so spoilers beware and all that.  But that’s pretty much par for the course for this blog series, anyway.

The Fifth Season deals with a society in which certain people, called orogenes, can manipulate the earth–quell earthquakes, move rocks, detect sound and vibrations–and who have been classes as subhuman and made into slaves to the rest of the empire because of it.  Another group, known as the Guardians, have been technologically modified to detect and control orogenes, and they move through the empire seeking out orogenes as children to be trained or hunting down adults who have somehow escaped notice in the past.  The rest of the world goes about life, benefiting from the labor of enslaved orogenes, not even thinking about the mental gymnastics required to justify keeping other humans penned like particularly useful cattle, and generally not wanting to know about the real conditions orogenes must live under.

In Noumenon, on the other hand, a hand-picked crew has left earth aboard a nine-ship convoy, all clones of their originals who had particular aptitude and skill in one area deemed necessary for the success of the mission.  However, halfway to the star–nearly 100 years after setting out in sub-dimensional travel–a small contingent, convinced that using clones who have no choice but to be aboard, and whose lives are artificially constricted by the material needs of the convoy, attempt to stage a mutiny and turn the convoy around.  In the aftermath of the event all the clone lines who participated in the mutiny are discontinued–never brought to adulthood again, until catastrophe strikes and the convoy must stop its homeward journey to mine an asteroid and build a new ship.  Then the discontinued lines are brought back, but this time to be miners–effectively slaves, and held segregated from the rest of the convoy.  Even after the mining is over and the convoy resumes its journey, the discontinued lines are forced to wear different clothing and work in menial jobs like janitorial, never allowed close to power or high-skilled work again.

Both these novels, then, deal with the concept of hereditary slavery based upon particular, recognizable traits used to dehumanize their victims.  While each goes about it somewhat differently, they are each a finger pointed at the chattel slavery system upon which the United States was built, using nothing but skin color to justify enslaving, disenfranchising, and murdering millions of people.  While in the Broken Earth world it’s clearly stated that being an orogene is not an inherited trait, the children of orogenes usually end up enslaved whether or not they share their parents’ ability; known orogenes who have been trained by the Fulcrum–the center of power and effective school for orogenes–are forced to wear a distinctive black uniform that is recognized anywhere in the empire.  The mere fact that people who share this distinctive ability are the only slaves in the empire is enough of a reference to the African slave trade in the Unisted Stetes.

Among the convoy in Noumenon, genetics are everything.  People grow up knowing what line they are part of, what they were grown for, and how they fit into the greater whole.  They also wear colored jumpsuits to denote their specialization, so when the discontinueds are brought back and forced to wear all-white jumpsuit, their second-class status is further enforced, because anyone else can tell at a glance that they are from lines heretofore considered subhuman and a liability to the convoy.  The parts of the novel that deal with asteroid mining are particularly gruesome as well, as all the mine worker lines are given only serial numbers and are overseen by enforcers who whip and threaten them, and even have the power to kill them on a whim.

While neither of these novels is explicitly about slavery and attempting to draw sff parallels, both accomplish incisive critiques of a modern United States that still has yet to reckon with its history of hereditary chattel slavery and the ways in which Africans were dehumanized in order to justify enslaving them.  They are each well-crafted stories in their own right, with fully realized world building and compelling characters.  Come for the awesome SFF, stay for the social critique.

 

Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.

After Atlas, by Emma Newman

Salvation has come and gone for most of Earth’s population, barely holding on as the environment is eroded along with their aspirations of ever living in free societies again.  Unless they’re incredibly wealthy, of course. Carlos Moreno, however, is nothing of the sort, a wage slave owned by the English Ministry of Justice, just trying to get through the next murder case and hang on to the dream of one day being owned by no one but himself, and doing his best to avoid all mention of Atlas, the Pathfinder, and those who left to seek God.

When someone close to him is murdered, though, and Carlos is asked—told—to investigate the murder, he finds himself being drowned all over again in the details of his childhood and former life after Atlas left, confronted with a past he would just as well forget.  After Atlas is an excellent example of an imaginative and accomplished writer’s ability to take the same basic premise and create two entirely different stories out of it.  It is also a stark view of the future we all face, without the prospect of a convenient ship to take anyone away to a better existence.

Newman’s use of first-person present narration, juxtaposed with the conflicts between technology users and non-users in the development of the murder case lends the novel a private eye noir feel, even as Carlos watches people have dinner conversations with interlocutors who are only there via technology and does all his research via a networked personal assistant implant.  It isn’t a complicated plot, but it is a satisfyingly logical one, with twists and turns that increase the claustrophobic feeling of Carlos’ story and the hopelessly devolving situation on an increasingly distracted and intellectually depressed Earth population.

Readers who enjoy near future science fiction narratives will get pulled into Newman’s dystopic vision of Earth, whether or not they’ve read Planetfall first, however an understanding of the events of the first in this series will certainly help. Those who look for mystery elements blended into science fiction or fantasy stories will like the pace and logical twists of this character driven story.  There are more layers to this novel than at first meet the eye, giving the reader plenty to chew on while contemplating the eventual demise of modern society.

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

On a facsimile of Earth, millions of miles from home, a small group of colonists have established a manufactured happiness, living with as little footprint as they can, surviving on the advancements of neuro-computers, 3-D printers, and a hyper-developed sense of social media etiquette.  While the Earth burns slowly behind them in waves of climate change and social unrest, Renata Ghali and her co-colonists wake up every morning at the gates of God’s City, and know they are the chosen.

Until, of course, something changes to break up their utopic existence, forcing Renata and her co-conspirator Mac to go to greater and greater lengths to maintain the fragile peace of a highly connected, insular community brought together by the lure of a planet calling them across the void, shown to them by their Pathfinder, Renata’s former best friend and lover.  This is the real story of space travel, the human side of technology and discovery, the truth under the frilly bedspread sewn by space opera romances.

Newman has a deft hand and an even keener sense of plotting, scattering details and clues to the mystery that has been Renata’s life ever since landing on this new alien planet, and even before she ever left.  She writes with a confidence in her story and ability that wraps the reader up in the plot, giving glimpses into the twists to come but the human story of Renata and her neighbors remains at the heart of the mystery, compelling and heartbreaking at the same time.

Readers interested in near-future science fiction without the authorial compulsion to educate and explain will find themselves engulfed by Newman’s vision of humanity’s future.  Those who prefer a compelling mystery plot to the hero’s journey need look no further than the twists and turns Renata takes to maintain her spun-glass story of a perfectly happy space colony. Newman’s is a refreshing and adept voice in the science fiction world and well worth checking out.

Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Domingo
is a street kid in Mexico City, the last bastion of vampire-free Mexico, and
indeed most of the Americas.  But
Domingo is more worried about finding enough recyclable trash in the landfill
to sell to the rag-and-bone man, to get money for food every day.  So why does he say hi to a young woman
one day on the subway, and why does he go home with her just because she
asks?  Domingo’s life is about to
get a lot more complicated.

Revenants,
Nachzehrers, Necros, Tlahuihpochtli—all are on the move, looking to carve out
new kingdoms for themselves in countries that, if not friendly to vampires, at
least are not outright hostile. 
Sometimes, vampires and humans get caught in the middle of the
fighting.  Ana, a cop who cut her
teeth dealing with vampires in other Mexican cities, has come to Mexico City to
settle down into a more subdued life. 
Atl, part of the ancient Mexican Tlahuihpochtli, ran to Mexico City to
escape a war between her kind and the Necros.  But her headlong run stirs up old hatreds—and creatures—long
thought dead. 

Moreno-Garcia’s
narrative prose is simple, clean, using multiple character viewpoints to tell a
story about radically different world than the one we know.  Her use of world vampire myths to build
this world is subtle, yet effective; she uses one of the oldest tricks in the
book to alienate the reader and build tension that holds the
attention—providing hints of a deeper world of doubt and unknowns that is far
more disturbing than a book of openly described horrors.  It is what the reader doesn’t know, can
only imagine, that builds the horror elements in this novel. 

Lovers
of vampire stories will enjoy how the novel incorporates world vampire lore
with well-known vampire and horror tropes.  Those who like to read near-future or alternate history
science fiction and fantasy will find themselves pulled into this world full of
monsters who are so like humans and yet much more.  Anyone looking for a well-crafted story that escapes the
familiar U.S. settings and characters should check out this Central
America-centric novel about universal themes.