2017 Faves: Sci-Fi Novels

As my Scottish Hogmanay vacation comes to an end, it seems like a good time to make another list of my favorite reads of 2017.  This time it’s science fiction novels.  Remember, these are books I actually read in 2017, not necessarily published in that year, but I’ll try to include publication information for each.

  1. Planetfall, by Emma Newman (Nov 2015)

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Though this came out in late 2015, it took me till December of 2016 to pick it up, and was one of my first reads of 2017.  It took my by surprise, really, as I knew little about it except the title and that I’d been hearing about it for a while.  The level of Newman’s writing is equaled by few in this milieu; the suspense wasn’t contrived and the science fictional elements really evoked a lot of classic science fiction while not feeling outdated. It was, in fact, a very sensitively written book, and the motivations of the main character in particular were a visceral gut-punch as they unfolded throughout the story.  It’s a very forward-looking novel with both hope and despair, and that’s the kind of science fiction I like.

2. The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee (June 2017)

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I love science fiction that challenges me, and Lee’s work always does.  This is the second in The machineries of Empire and it had just as many twists and turns, just as many hints and secrets as the first.  I’ve always felt that much of good world building is in deciding what not to explain, and this series really satisfies in that way.  I want to wonder, I want to use my imagination–as in horror, sometimes what gets left unsaid is the best catalyst for creativity–and The Raven Strategem really pushed me to engage with the world and the story it was telling.

3. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey (March 2017)

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This novel sort of came out of nowhere for me.  It requested it through NetGalley, probably forgot about it for a while, then picked it up one day when I was looking for something to read.  It really reads as more of a thought experiment, or series of short story sketches all woven together into a big I Wonder.  As much as it is interested in the science of space travel, it really probes the psychology of space travel and how we engage with something so completely alien to us–namely the vacuum itself.

4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon (October 2017)

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I’m always fascinated by fiction that explores what it’s like to live on a ship traveling through space, rather than just telling an adventure story that happens to happen in space, so this novel really grabbed me right from the first page.  It took me two or three tries before I checked it out of the library, but I’m glad I did.  It’s in many ways an own-voices story of the people often forgotten in mainstream science fiction–those who are not white, hetero, cis, male–and proof, if it were ever needed, that all stories can be compelling, complete, and contain multitudes with which to identify.  Again, in addition to being beautifully written it challenges with all that’s left untold.

5. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie (October 2014)

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A person that’s a ship, a ship that’s a person.  A person who’s a mind graft of a thousand-times cloned person hundreds of years old.  An old menace, a new threat, connections made and broken.  Sometimes it seems that Ann Leckie’s fiction was made just for me.  I’ll never tire of a universe in which male isn’t the default, in which the definition of human is more than just meat and emotion.  This time it’s not a story of revenge, but one of putting things back together, looking for a way to move on, and it’s just as compelling as Ancillary Justice.

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August 2017 Library Checkouts

It’s September, and another month of reading has faded into the past.  Here’s what I checked out from my local library system in August.  I also read a few ARCs, or at least started a few, and maybe I’ll get around to talking about them.

I checked out and listened to all four books in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series through my library system’s Overdrive service.  They were fun and irreverent, and I’d definitely listen to at least four more of them!

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I also finished up Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (for the second time), also on Overdrive, and am avidly looking forward to the next book in the series.

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As far as the read word, I checked out (and finished) Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter, The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, Upgraded, a short fiction collection edited by Neil Clarke, and The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst.  That novel certainly takes the cake for most fascinating fantasy world that I’d never want to live in!

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.