Companion Pieces: The Wanderers and Packing for Mars

This past year I read The Wanderers, Met Howrey’s imagining of a near present in which an international team of three undergo a year long simulation of a trip to Mars, in which they are completely isolated and get to talk to other people besides themselves only through digital/radio communication.  It was in many ways more of a thought experiment than a full-fledged climactic novel, but it still pushed a lot of buttons.

I decided to make Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars the staff pick at my library for October, and it again got me thinking about The Wanderers.  Though Roach’s exploration of the history of space entry and travel covers a lot of ground considered the distant past in Howrey’s novel, it is still essentially about the human aspect of space travel, which is what any long-term space voyage simulation is really trying to figure out.  Engineers can calculate fuel and weight and trajectories, plan for when certain parts will fail and how many extra toilets will be needed, you never know when a human mind will fail the test of time and isolation.

I don’t read much non-fiction, but these two books go together well, and are a great companion read for anyone steeped in the traditions of spacey sff.

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.

The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Reviewing the second book in a series is sometimes the most difficult kind of blog post.  The Raven Stratagem, book two in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of War series, is a lot of what one might expect after book one, and yet also plenty more.  The draw is the system of calendrical warfare and control  utilized by the hexarchate in order to maintain the system that has kept its leaders in power for centuries, but what keeps one reading is the intense focus on personal motivation and the overpowering humanity of the characters, even those who veer far outside the scale of normal social behavior and even sanity.

This novel picks up where Ninefox Gambit left off, with Kel Cheris a lifeless husk controlled by the terrifying revenant Shuos Jedao after the hexarchate attempted to take Jedao out following his successful quelling of rebellion at the Fortress of Scattered Needles.  Jedao knows he will always be too dangerous to remain alive, and yet he is determined to follow through with the mission of eliminating all threats to the hexarchate, and not just the original rebellion.  Meanwhile, at Shuos headquarters–at all hexarch headquarters, leaders are scrambling not only to figure out what Jedao is up to, but to maintain their own grasps of power and outmaneuver each other.

The driving motivations for most of the characters profiled in this novel, though we see the action from their points of view, are difficult to parse.  It is a given in the hexarchate that anyone with any bit of power has something to hide, and Lee sketches each character’s life as if it is a straight line leading up to the very moment of challenge or conflict they face in the novel, and yet every person’s life is far from a straight, intelligible progression of cause and effect.  Like the storms of war that plague the hexarchate, every person’s life is bound up with the cause and effect actions of others, and few can see to the roots of the struggle.

Cheris was originally chosen for her task of carrying Jedao because of her ability to think outside the Kel box she chose for herself, Brezan rises to astonishing heights for being a crashhawk–one who can resist Kel formation instinct, essentially military brainwashing–and Khiruev, whose fleet is appropriated by Jedao in Cheris’ body, can only succeed at failure.  Lee has taken all the complicated and frustrating aspects of humanity and painted them across the universe, greed, hatred, love, loyalty all fighting it out among the swarms and formations and exotic weapons and phantom terrain.

It’s a beautiful, fascinating, utterly confusing novel, and I look forward to book three with great anticipation.

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.

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

question is simple: What would happen, what stories would come out of it, if an
alien presence landed in Lagos, Nigeria? 
The answer is anything but simple. 
Life, it turns out, doesn’t stop when something unbelievable
happens.  You may become the center
of an unbelievable story, but you are still part of something larger, and
everything becomes much more complicated before it ever dreams of being simple
again.  So Adaora, Agu, and Anthony
discover when they are contacted by a being who calls herself Ayodele, who can
change her shape, and wants to be the ambassador between her people and the
people of Nigeria.

Lagoon reads almost more like a series
of stories than as a novel, full as it is of short chapters and small moments
between secondary characters. 
Though the main story follows Adaora and her companions, readers see how
even when they become the heroes of this story they are still pulled in many
directions by forces and connections they have built up over their entire
lives.  In this way, Okorafor
imbues Lagos with both an agelessness and an immediacy that allow myths to live
and old gods to rule.  Who is
pulling the strings, the reader wonders.  The aliens? Adaora, somehow taking the reins of her life and
the lives of those around her? 
Some other presence that has been in Nigeria all along? 

began Lagoon in response to the film District 9, and in it one can see the
response also to a culture in love with superheroes who become larger than life
and, eventually, above the lives of those they are meant to protect,
approaching even godhood.  The
underlying questions of who is really controlling this story interrogate
superhero culture—interrogate many aspects of modern technological culture and
media including traditional militarized narratives of alien visitation—until,
again, all we are left with are people who might possess something special that
pushes them into this story, but who still have a connection to where they came
from and essentially never forget who they are amidst the chaos of the alien’s

writing in Lagoon is sparse and very
close to the characters she’s writing—getting in their heads in a way that,
again, hints to the reader that this is not a novel, as advertised, but someone
else’s story entirely—and motivation is key in this novel in a way that really
highlights how motivation is sublimated in stories like District 9 or Independence
in favor of valorizing the heroes of their respective stories.  Okorafor’s style in this novel also
really localizes the story in a way that is intentionally alienating to readers
not connected to Nigeria or its history, a method that both has a significant
pay-off at the end, and gives the novel its extended metaphor of a person or
group of people finding their true home, coming to terms with their past, or
otherwise righting some existing wrong.

interested in the intersection of science fiction and environmental change will
enjoy the ways Lagoon looks at
humanity’s effect on the environment and how it can be interpreted by
outsiders.  Fans of contemporary
science fiction will enjoy the immediacy of Okorafor’s story, as will those
looking for a story that decenters traditional United States-centric science
fiction narratives.  Readers of
“new weird” science fiction and fantasy will enjoy the ways that Okorafor
blends myth, science, and horror elements to create a story that challenges
readers on many levels.

Infidel, by Kameron Hurley

centuries people have been seeking a way to end the brutal religious war
between Chenja and Nasheen.  Now it
looks like the one person who might be able to do it is the one who believes it
will never end.  Nyx thought she’d
settled into a life that was somewhat more predictable than it had been when
she was tracking down alien gene pirates. 
Business is, if not booming, at least steady, and she hasn’t been shot
at in a while.  But there’s always
the next assignment to shake things up.

Kameron Hurley’s second installment in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series, and this
time Nyx has even less to lose.  Or
so she had thought.  After God’s War, it seemed impossible that
anything could hit harder, but Infidel
finds ways to further plumb the depths of Nyx’s soul.  Where God’s War asked
questions about human nature and religion, Infidel
takes a deeper look into the psyche of Nyx herself, taking the reader on a trip
through Nyx’s own living hell, pushing her to the limits of even her
strength.  Hurley has written the
kind of anti-hero you can’t help loving, even if Nyx can’t love herself.

writing is crisp, relying on pacing and dialogue to round out her characters
and carry the story forward. 
Hurley’s style allows the reader to get glimpses into each character’s thoughts,
which gives added impact to their actions, especially when the two don’t match
up.  Once again, complicated
relationships make this novel worth reading.

looking for a truly conflicted protagonist will find it in this novel—and
series.  Hurley doesn’t do anything
just for effect; everything matters. 
Science fiction and fantasy lovers will find plenty of it in a world
where giant bugs are the norm and reconstructing a human skin or other
tissue—even reanimating the dead—are the norm for Umayma’s magicians.  The unwinnable war will prove compelling
for many a reader tired of the lofty ideals and cute tropes so rampant in
fantasy writing today.  Gritty and
gutsy are the words for this novel.

The SEA is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

is about finding that fascinating intersection between fantasy and science
fiction, where futuristic technology not only meets, but becomes, magic—animals
fused with robotics, working airships, myths embodied in a mystical combination
of art and science.  The SEA is Ours is about bringing
together the already wide world of steampunk with the wonderfully diverse and
vivid Southeast Asian worlds imagined by authors from that region.  For anyone who is used to thinking of
steampunk a la Scott Westerfeld, Cherie Priest, or Elizabeth Bear, The SEA is Ours makes no bones about its
de-centering of Europe and the U.S., and its stories’ reliance on regional
history and myth with little introduction for the outside reader.  And it does all of this while collecting
well-written stories from a wide range of perspectives.

stories in this collection hail from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia,
Vietnam, and more.  From Marilag
Angway’s “Chasing Volcanoes,” about an airship that refuels via active
volcanoes in the Philippines and takes on an unexpected cargo, to Alessa
Hinlo’s folklore-inspired tale of European encroachment into the Philippines in
“The Last Aswang,” to Olivia Ho’s noir gears and gadgets story that brings to
mind an urban Frankenstein in “Working Woman,” this collection has something
for everyone who loves steampunk or myth or both at the same time. 

The SEA is Ours writers take on
themes often applied to the region on their own terms, exploring fantasies of
flight, the clash of worlds, past lives, and ideas of progress.  Many of the stories use personal
relationships, particularly siblings, to explore the duality of nations
struggling to define themselves while being subject to decades, and even
centuries, of outside pressure.  In
“Between Severed Souls,” Paolo Chikiamco imagines one family’s struggle to
right the perceived wrongs of history projected onto the greater history of
Spanish imperialism in the Philippines, where technology and folklore come
together in the life of an artist who has lost his wife, and allow him to
confront the past in these many layers. 

stories in this collection, though, are as vibrant and varied as their sources
and the people they represent, and imagine a strong history and stronger future
for the region.  Any reader used to
United States or European-centered steampunk should definitely check out this
collection for a new take on an endlessly varied subgenre.  Readers interested in the intersection
of science fiction and folklore will definitely enjoy the stories in The SEA is Ours, while those who like to
see representation of many types of diversity will enjoy this collection’s
inclusion of not just cultural, but ability and gender diversity as well.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

happens for a reason.  A motto that
many use when bad things happen to good people takes on new meaning in the
story of a disparate group of people who live through the collapse of
civilization in a breathtaking pandemic. 
Station Eleven is a painfully
self-aware novel about finding meaning in the most incomprehensible
circumstances, an extended metaphor on extended metaphor that lovers of
cerebral fiction will find irresistible.

novel revolves around the life of Arthur Leander, a world-famous actor who
wants nothing less than to be unknown, but who can’t help being a star—in all
its meanings.  When Arthur is
starring in his final role as Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear, he unknowingly sets off a chain of events that will
reverberate even through the post-pandemic world that Kirsten Raymonde and the
rest of the Traveling Symphony find themselves in.  Post-civilization is much as one would expect in that type
of novel, with violence, small bands of people surviving together, and the
occasional religious prophet come to profit off the disaster.  Yet Mandel adds a subtle twist in that
the story revolves not around the characters’ struggle for survival, but their
struggle for something more than survival, and the secret of a comic book story
called Station Eleven.

Mandel’s writing is understated, a satisfying contrast to the
theatricality that is the subject of the novel.  The actions of her characters speak for themselves.  The prose is simple while reveling in
the disparateness of the pre- and post- collapse chapters.  This novel is reminiscent of traditional
coming-of-age stories or the tale of the hero’s journey, however Mandel leaves
in question just who is coming of age—Kirsten, Arthur, one of the other
characters, or even the next society itself—and whose journey it truly is.  Those who are looking for action might
feel the plot unravels too slowly, but those who like to savor a story won’t
want it to end.

who like near-future dystopia and “what comes after” stories will enjoy
Mandel’s depictions of a society coming to terms with what it has lost.  Lovers of language and its inextricable
intertwining with literature will certainly feel the pull of a writer who
obviously does too.  Readers who
seek character-driven, self-aware fiction will enjoy the many levels upon which
Mandel has built her world.