The Tuesday List: Bodies of Law

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.

  1. The Engineer Trilogy, by K.J. Parker

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin

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.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

There are many kinds of escape.  Some stories tell of the escape from a dead planet, a dead end existence in which extinction is inevitable.  Some novels describe the escape from childhood ignorance, or the oppression of ideas that hold back the soul.  There are tales which pour into the imagination an escape from bondage or other force which dehumanizes, diminishes, plunders.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, as it happens is all of these stories, an more.  From a purely narrative level, it is the story of Aster, of Q Deck, on the generation ship Matilda, 300 years from earth and yet not so far as to escape its ghosts.  Just like the allegory The CaveAn Unkindness of Ghosts casts shadows of the past onto a future that is utterly unlike what we have known, and at the same time far too familiar.  Aster is clever, Aster is special, Aster is exemplary, and yet Aster cannot escape the barracks, the guards, the overseers, and the constant cold of a ship whose masters care only for their own comforts and live in constant fear of a lower-class uprising.

Solomon’s masterpiece debut flips the script on familiar science fiction hero tropes, in which power is a mutable thing, a thing that can be seized, wielded, transferred.  All Aster’s power lies in her mind, and in the tenuous connections she can forge between others on the margins of power.  There is no hero, in this novel, only people who do their best, and those who do their worst.

In Aster’s world, words have become something else, nearly unrecognizable from their origins.  Alchematics, botanarium, meema, surgeon general, these and more flow through a torrent of action and reaction, work, sleep, lockdowns, searches, doctoring, loving, living, and dying.  Dead already is Aster’s mother, Lune, once a genius and now a ghost, haunting Aster through her journals and the stories others tell about her, dead soon is the Sovereign, whose symptoms somehow mirror Lune’s, 25 years ago, before she went, and may hold the secret to freeing Matilda.

With hints of Snowpiercer, touches of The Underground Railroad, and kinship with Who Fears Death, this novel is a necessary addition to contemporary science fiction, a conflagration of things lost and found and maybe, just maybe, hope.

An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir

In the Martial Empire, freedom is the price you pay for security.  Whether it’s knowing your social cast will always have the same privileges, or the surety of poverty in the Scholar’s quarter, the one thing the Martials always provide is guaranteed destiny.  On the surface, this novel could fall into the “just another tale of empire” category, but as the story goes on Tahir builds out both the mythology and history of the Scholar and Martial civilizations to provide depth and conflict to both the Scholar struggle for freedom and the Martial fears of overturned dynasty.

An Ember in the Ashes hinges on the existence of a school of pseudo-peacekeepers, called Blackcliff, from which the mysterious and terrifying Masks graduate.  These masks are highly trained military personnel, who also possess somewhat magical abilities that seem to exist primarily to terrify the populace.  Laia is orphaned by a Mask raid on her Scholar home, in which her grandparents are killed and her brother taken.  She joins a Scholar rebel group and infiltrates Blackcliff on a mission to gain the rebel’s trust and get them to help get her brother out.

Unfortunately, this is where things begin to fall apart, from a meta perspective.  While everything Laia does in order to save her brother is realistic, even logical, the ways in which the narrative is constructed leaves somewhat to be desired.  Elias, one of the few Masks to both unoppositionally disagree with everything the Masks stand for and to survey all the way to graduation (dissenters and the disloyal are weeded out mercilessly), is all too typical of the “slave to fate” protagonists who hates the world but is too scared to really do anything about it.  The fact that he is one of the point of view characters, and so the reader spends a lot of time in his head, doesn’t help, as he often comes off as whiny and privileged.

The other major problem is the way in which women are handled in this novel.  In short, they are isolated.  There are three major woman characters, with a few supporting women characters.  The three major characters–Laia, Helene, and the Commandant–exist as antagonists to each other, and provide motivation for Elias.  Laia starts out free but subjugated and becomes a slave for whom he feels sympathy and a symbol of what is wrong with the Empire.  Helene is his best friend and for some reason the only woman chosen to attend Blackcliff–the narrative gives a one-sentence explanation that one woman per generation is selected.  She’s the perfect student, completely loyal to Elias, and therefore hates any other woman close to him.

Finally, the Commandant, Elias’ mother–again, the only woman of her generation–who is the only identifiable villain of the novel.  Other characters exist who commit evil by degrees, but she’s the one made only of cruelty and malice, who enjoys torturing people.  She made a name for herself hunting down rebels, and goes through slaves like cheap gloves, but somehow has managed to keep two kitchen slaves around for a few years, one of whom befriends Laia.  But this friendship also really only exists to create tension and advance the plot.  Otherwise women don’t really interact in this novel.  They are all exceptional in their own way and all are wound up in a fate storyline controlled by a group of oracles whose motives are not clear, so not only are they isolated, their agency is somewhat curtailed by the fact that they exist to carry out the plans of an outside force.

So, while Ember in the Ashes had some character issues that need to be resolved in the following books, it was a compelling look at the way empire and colonialism perpetuates itself in numerous ways, effectively enslaving even those who nominally benefit from it.  A good companion series might be Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives.

 

The Tuesday List: American Heart

No, this isn’t about that horrible-sounding YA novel built on white guilt and Islamaphobia, it’s about books that really get to the heart of “America,” America being the United States and what it was built upon.

  1. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

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2. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

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3. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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4. Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

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5. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

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Bonus # 6!

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole

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The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

What will you do, when the inevitable catastrophe hits?  Will you cower, will you go out to help people, will you take advantage?  The empire has procedure in place for all of these things, and more.  They are very prepared, you’ll find, for any eventuality.  Because this has happened before, and it will happen again.  The earth will move, the ground shatter, the volcanoes erupt, people will die.  But some will live.

The Fifth Season takes on a lot of heavy topics and, by and large, handles them well.  The enslavement of one group of people based on a particular trait they all share is the main focus of this novel, but the hidden history of a world controlled by a powerful bureaucracy is another.  The empire in which Syenite has grown up is one in which everyone knows their place.  It’s written in their names, which consist of designators for the community they live in and the kind of service they render to that community.  Unless they’re an orogene, in which case their black uniform gives all the information others need about them.  And then their are the guardians, highly respected, but possibly much more dangerous than an orogene could be.

Guardians are the slavemasters, the groomers, those given power to take innocent children and turn them into tools for the supposed good of the state.  Essun believes she has escaped all this, or would like to believe it.  But she has grown up in this empire and perhaps knew all along that it could not last.  Nothing lasts, in the Stillness.

That is, of course, a false statement, and yet it isn’t.  The empire is perpetual, but in the way that all empires are: through convincing its subjects that it is so.  Syenite thought she had come to terms with the Empire, until she was brought together with Alabaster for a very special mission, and learns that all is not as she has always believed.

And amidst it all is the end of the world.  Jemisin has achieved new depths to her narrative style with The Fifth Season, combining not only multiple viewpoints and an ability to tell a compelling story out of order, but also telling the story of the world itself in addition to that of the people in it.  The Fifth Season is a visceral reminder that we are only the sum of the stories we tell, and that that can change in an instant.  So, what would you do, at the end of the world?

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.