Category Archives: Science Fiction

Book Review: Genrenauts #2, The Absconded Ambassador by Michael R. Underwood

When I read the first of Michael R. Underwood’s new Genrenauts series, I compared it to the pilot of a television show—it was a solid introduction to the series, but it had a lot of pilot episode problems. The Absconded Ambassador is a rather shaky second outing for the series, and it just didn’t work for me. This time the genrenauts travel to science fiction world, which was exciting, but Underwood didn’t really do anything particularly new or interesting with the setting. The Shootout Solution had a sort of twist that, while obvious, was an interesting exploration of western adventure tropes. There’s nothing like that here, which was a little bit of a letdown.

On the bright side, there was more character development for the main characters this time around, and Leah and the rest of the genrenauts are starting to feel a little more like real people. That said, Leah isn’t a particularly likeable character, but she’s also not unlikeable in any particularly interesting ways. She also shares a lot of screen time on this outing with other characters, but none of them are very memorable, either.

If you don’t have compelling characters, a great plot is a must, but the actual plot here is whisper thin. Very few things actually happen, and those that do aren’t very interesting. The peril caused by the kidnapping of the ambassador never feels very high stakes, and the more general danger of what could happen in the real world if a genre world breaks never manages to feel, well, real.

These issues may simply be due to the limitations of the short length of these novellas and the serial nature of the story, but it’s already hard to muster up any excitement for the next installment at this point. I’ve so far compared this series to a television show, but the problem with serial novella-length installments is that they don’t come out a week apart. The next one won’t be out until months from now, and that’s a long time to wait for mediocrity.

Book Review: Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall is a brilliant portrait of a character and a community both in crises and a meditation on the ways in which the community and the individual are intertwined. It’s a gorgeously realized sci-fi mystery about a secret that festers in the heart of a seeming utopia and threatens to destroy it all.

Renata Ghali followed her dearest friend, Lee Suh-Mi, across the stars to a new planet in search of God, but what they found when they arrived on their new planet was, well, inconclusive. When Suh-Mi disappears, Renata and the rest of their colony have to figure out how to go on without her. Over twenty years later, Suh-Mi’s grandson shows up and starts uncovering the truth that Renata has helped to hide all this time.

Much of the praise I’ve seen for Planetfall has been for its narrator, and I can’t help but concur. Ren is a fascinating character with an unconventional point of view that makes hers a unique perspective to read a story from. She’s an older woman (a youthful seventy or so, in fact), a woman of color, queer, and significantly mentally ill, though the revelation of that last fact sort of creeps up on you as you read her story. The first person present tense narrative provides a nice sense of immediacy and immersion, which becomes increasingly important as the story moves along and Renata’s mental state deteriorates. Over the course of the novel, Ren becomes increasingly anxious and paranoid, then frantic as secrets start to be uncovered. It’s not always an easy thing to read, but it is absolutely riveting.

I only wish that there had been more actual science in Planetfall, although I think that’s more a sign that I’ve been in a mood for harder sci-fi recently than it is a sign that Emma Newman fails the reader in any particular way. Indeed, there are all kinds of interesting ideas on display here, from printing technology to sustainable living and social engineering. This book straddles the worlds of harder sci-fi and more human-focused sci-fi and does both justice, but I would have loved more explanation of how things worked, especially the space travel portion of the colony’s journey, which I felt was very glossed over. Realistically, it doesn’t matter and isn’t really pertinent to the story being told, which is likely why there’s not more detail about the ship and the journey, but I kind of love that stuff.

Finally, I would also have liked to see some of the themes surrounding religion and spirituality in an age of scientific and technological wonders be a little more fully developed. There are all kinds of ideas touched upon regarding the existence of God, the possible ultimate fruitlessness of humanity’s search for God, and even the ways in which faith makes people vulnerable—both to their own bad ideas and to exploitation in service of other people’s bad ideas. Ren is a great protagonist for asking questions and making observations about these things, as she’s a skeptic herself and her disconnectedness from her community makes her often a shrewd observer of people. However, her observations are thoroughly colored by her significant mental illness, making them increasingly unreliable over the course of the book even as more of Ren’s and the colony’s history is revealed, and the rather abrupt ending of the story is somewhat unsatisfying.

All in all, though, Planetfall is a great book. It’s got a lovely, almost meditative pace to it, and it’s an incredible character study of its narrator. As someone who also suffers from depression and anxiety, with a tendency towards reclusiveness, I found Ren incredibly relatable, and I can definitely see this being a book that I will return to in the future.

Book Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky, on its surface, is a story about two weirdos who come of age and fall in love during an apocalypse. It’s a story infused with magic, from the first time we see Patricia talk to a bird, and it’s a story about bad timing, from the moment Laurence makes his first two-second time machine. It’s a comedy of errors about the end of the world, and it’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever read. I’m only a little disappointed to have read it so early in the year. I feel about All the Birds in the Sky the way I felt about N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (which this novel is absolutely nothing like) last year; I just know, deep down, that nothing else I read in 2016 is going to top it.

In Patricia and Laurence, Charlie Jane Anders has created a pair of compelling and dynamic protagonists who are in perfect balance with each other. Patricia learns at an early age that she’s a witch, and Laurence is doing advanced tinkering in first grade. By the time they are in middle school, they’re both decidedly outcast by their peers and bond over that shared status even though they are otherwise nearly polar opposites. However, Anders avoids stereotypes and simplistic characterization in her depiction of her leads. Laurence and Patricia are both grandly archetypal and intensely real, and their story is at once epic and deeply personal.

Anders also peoples the world that Patricia and Laurence live in with a diverse cast of characters, from their two very different but equally dysfunctional families to their mentors to their adult friend groups who turn out to have more in common than not. There are talking birds, an AI, a tree spirit, and even a time traveling assassin/guidance counselor who ends up being one of the funniest characters in the book. While, on one level, all of these secondary and tertiary characters are arrayed like chess pieces, again Anders avoids drawing the battle lines too clearly, creating an interesting, nuanced dramatis personae.

The story meanders between fantasy and science fiction towards a climax that combines the best of both to excellent effect. The plotting and pacing are consistently good, and the tropes Anders utilizes are well chosen and smartly combined. When she chooses to subvert the reader’s expectations, it’s done in a way that is obviously very clever but never veering into twee territory. All the Birds invites the reader to play along when other less deft works might simply toy with the reader’s emotions. There’s plenty in this book that is unexpected, but there’s enough of the familiar to make it feel like an old friend that you’ll want to visit again and again.

It’s a strange book to review because I don’t want to give too much away, but also because I’ve never read anything quite like it. All the Birds reminds me most of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, albeit vaguely, and it objectively has very little in common with that book outside of the fact that it also deals with an apocalyptic event and was quite funny. The truth is that All the Birds in the Sky is a wonderfully unique and fabulously original novel that isn’t really quite like anything except itself.

Book Review: Patchwerk by David Tallerman

I received a free advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

I had no idea what to expect when I opened Patchwerk, aside from what the cover blurb says about it, so it was a complete and mostly pleasant surprise. I’d never heard of David Tallerman before, and this is the only thing I’ve ever read by him. Patchwerk is a type of sci-fi story that I don’t usually seek out—the “man invents something ill-advised and hijinks ensue” sort—so it was an interesting change of pace, although it was a great follow-up to Microsoft’s Future Visions anthology of “harder” sci-fi, which I just recently finished.

In some ways, Patchwerk is an interestingly experimental work, told in a series of alternate universe vignettes, each beginning where the previous one left off so that the reader learns what is going on at about the same rate as the characters do. At the same time, I figured it out before I think I was supposed to when I read it, so that the revelation when it came felt a little redundant and slightly condescending. It felt as if Tallerman thought he was being a good deal cleverer than he actually was when he came up with the concept for the book. Still, it wasn’t a particularly egregious example of this flaw, and the concept works well in other ways even if it fails somewhat as a tool for creating suspense.

What Patchwerk lacks in suspense—the stakes are said to be high (or at least implied to be), but things never do feel all that dire, and the ending was a little too pat—it makes up for in sheer action packed-ness. At no point was I ever bored reading this little book, and I finished it almost entirely in one sitting, on the edge of my seat the whole time. Though I complain that I figured some things out before the book confirmed them, I was so delighted with what was going on that it didn’t bother me at all while reading.

Perhaps my only significant complaint about this novella is a technical one. While I’d have to reread it to find specific examples, it seemed as if Tallerman shifted pretty freely between a close third person point of view focused on Dran and an omniscient narrator with some insights to Karen that Dran wouldn’t have been privy to on his own, and this was sometimes distracting. It might have benefited from another close read during the editing process to clarify some random-seeming point of view shifts that were a little distracting.

This definitely isn’t my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas, but it’s another solid entry into the catalog, and I’m glad to have read it. While it didn’t tickle my fancy as much as Of Sorrow and Such or Binti or Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, it was a nice journey outside my usual sub-genre choices, and it gave me something to think about for the afternoon that I read it.

Book Review: Future Visions – Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft

Future Visions had me at Ann Leckie (also at “free” because who passes up free stories?), but it turns out that Microsoft’s first foray into sci-fi publishing is actually a solidly good collection of work. I honestly wasn’t at all certain that it would be, and, worse, I was more than a little concerned that it would end up being little more than an extended, fictionalized advertisement for Microsoft products. Instead, it’s a well-produced anthology of hard sci-fi that ranges from very recognizable speculation about the near-future to space opera.

First, though, there’s a forward and an introduction, both written by Microsoft Research executives and both of which sound a little too much like marketing copy, even though the only thing they’re “selling” is ideas. Still, Harry Shum and Rick Rashid do a decent job of kicking things off and giving the reader a little bit of insight into what the rest of the book contains. If nothing else, this pair of essays will be an interesting bit of context for future scholars who might examine Future Visions as an artifact of our times. This will be even better if this project turns out to be a recurring one. As someone with a scholarly interest in these things myself, I would love to look back someday at ten or twenty or fifty years’ worth of Future Visions and see how things have gone.

The opening piece of fiction is a delightful piece by Seanan McGuire, whose work I really ought to check out more of because I always enjoy her short fiction when I come across it. Her offering here, “Hello, Hello,” is an optimistic tale about the impact voice and body language translation technology could have on the lives of people with disabilities. It also suggests an interesting way in which this type of technology could expand our understanding of our world. The story is told with sensitivity and humor, and it’s sweet without being cloyingly so.

Greg Bear’s “The Machine Starts” is a rather darker story that examines some of the potential hazards of quantum computing. Something about how it could break the whole damn multiverse. It’s bad enough knowing that we’ve all got a couple of doppelgangers, just statistically, but now we’ve got to also worry that they could be actual alternate universe versions of us. Thanks, Microsoft.

“Skin in the Game” by Elizabeth Bear is the first story that I didn’t care much for, but it’s still not awful. I was surprised, though, as I’ve loved all the books I’ve read by this author. The Nancy Kress entry, “Machine Learning,” is another story that I found dull and a little uninspired, though your mileage may vary.

“Riding with the Duke” by Jack McDevitt is reminiscent of the work of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, so of course I loved it. It’s my favorite combination of optimism and cynicism—smart, funny, and deeply fucked up.

“A Cop’s Eye” is basically a comic book, and the story is just okay. I like the idea of police officers using technology to help people, but I feel like a lot more needs to change than some tech advances in order to make this story a real possibility. The art is simplistic and rather boring, and just getting to read it was a hassle as however it’s embedded into the file I was reading on my Nook HD would only crash the device’s reader when I tried to turn the page to it. I ended up reading it in the Nook app on my Surface, which worked fine, so maybe it’s just my device starting to show its age, but still. Very irritating.

Robert J. Sawyer’s “Looking for Gordo” is an excellent first contact story. It’s also another optimistic piece, although it does examine some of the arguments for and against trying to contact other life in the galaxy. If you like this story, I highly recommend checking out Liu Cixin’s Three-body series, which deals with some of the same ideas.

I tried so hard to stick it out and finish David Brin’s “The Tell,” but I just couldn’t. I won’t say it’s unreadably bad, but it definitely was, for me, impossible to do anything but skim it, skip to the end, and hope it made more sense. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The story deals with prediction-making, I guess, but really it felt much more like a long, dry, self-indulgent think piece. Again, I don’t know that I’d say it’s bad, but I certainly found that it wasn’t for me.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ann Leckie’s story, having only read her novels so far. I can’t tell if “Another Word for World” is set in the same universe as the Imperial Radch series, but it’s definitely in that neighborhood—definitely space opera, but also similar to the more sociological sci-fi of Ursula K. LeGuin or Karen Lord. It’s a story about colonialism, treaties, and the problems inherent in relying too much on translation devices. It’s also my favorite piece of Future Visions, and this book is definitely worth downloading (for FREE) just to read this story, though I do recommend giving the rest a try as well.

Book Review: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

I’m always torn, when reading anything by Catherynne M. Valente, between feeling just incredible awe at her skill as a wordsmith and storyteller and being overcome by crushing feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing because she’s so brilliant and talented and only a couple of years older than me. I’m always happy when she’s written something new, and Radiance was perhaps my most-anticipated novel of 2015. Even better, it’s everything I dreamed it would be.

The most wonderful thing about Valente’s work is that it’s all the same, but also that it’s all remarkably different and unique. Radiance is like nothing I’ve ever read before, but it’s also very reminiscent of Valente’s other recent work. Earlier this year, I read her novella, Speak Easy, and Radiance has much in common with that shorter work, to the point where I get the feeling that both stories grew out of some of the same research. What is certain, though, is that these two works represent a sharp shift in Valente’s adult work. Radiance, in particular, seems to represent a decided shift away from some of the author’s fairy tale themes, in favor of gothic romance, noir, and proto-sci-fi influences.

Valente’s work has always skewed literary and is often avant garde, and this is her most ambitious and experimental (or at least most successfully so) novel yet. In Radiance, Valente eschews traditional prose forms in favor of presenting the story in the form of found objects: newspaper clippings, movie scripts, interviews, and so on. While this decision can be occasionally frustrating and even confusing at times (mostly in the first third of the book), it pays off in the end as Valente creates a haunting portrait of a mysterious woman that also functions as a love letter to a part of cinematic history that many readers may not be familiar with.

Radiance is a masterpiece of non-linear storytelling, and Valente deftly weaves together numerous threads to build a world that is beautifully surreal and create characters who are wonderfully compelling. Every detail Valente includes works towards the overall effect of the book, which is whimsical and melancholy and epic in scale and deeply personal all at once.

There are no words to adequately encompass any Valente novel, though. You’ve simply got to read it for yourself. When you do, I highly recommend opting for print over the ebook, as this sort of found object style is highly tactile and benefits from being read on dead trees. My only complaint is that Tor Books didn’t print the book particularly well. It’s fine, and I do love the cover, but the interior design is average at best. I would have loved to read this in a format that utilized page layout and typography to enhance the reading experience. It would have been just that much more magical.

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

binti-book-coverBinti is the first of the Tor.com novellas that has turned out to be slightly disappointing to me, but I think that’s because my expectations were so very high after reading Nnedi Okorafor’s previous work over the last few years. It was always going to be hard for this story to live up to the power and beauty of Lagoon or Who Fears Death or The Book of Phoenix.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like Binti. Indeed, there’s a lot to love about this little book, although probably my first complaint about it would be that it is so very little. Of the Tor.com novellas I’ve read so far, Binti has by far the lowest page count, which is a shame if for no other reason than I never want any book by Nnedi Okorafor to end.

My second complaint, and a more substantive one, is that Binti relies a little too much on magic in order to move the story along. Okorafor has always created worlds with a synthesis of magic and science, but here the magic becomes too much of a deus ex machina. Considering the book’s hefty messages about colonization, racism, and the nature of humanity, this excessive mysticism may be intentional, but I found it a bit much at times.

Binti‘s greatest strengths, on the other hand, lie in Okorafor’s gift for crafting characters and cultures. Binti herself is a wonderful heroine, if perhaps a little unrealistic in her lack of any real flaws, and her Meduse counterpart Okwu is excellently conceived and nicely-written. The Meduse people in general are fascinating, although their grievance was resolved a little too neatly in the end.

The very best part of the book, though, is the way Okorafor weaves in Binti’s personal history and shows the complicated feelings Binti has about her people, her culture, and her sense of self. There’s something rather melancholy about the ways in which Binti’s journey changes her, but I quite like the idea that every journey–no matter how much we start on our own terms–is a journey into an unknown and uncontrollable future. What I like even more, however, is the idea that we can always save something and take it with us. I love the idea of something as culturally and regionally specific as the Himba people’s otjize lasting long enough in time and space for someone to wear it to college on another planet, and in Binti otjize becomes a perfect symbol of resistance, endurance, and connection to the past.

I just wish there was a little more plot happening. There’s just not much going on, and the novella ends up feeling both uneventful and overstuffed with meaning. Without a strong story to support all of the big ideas Okorafor is weaving together, Binti starts collapse under its own weight. It’s a shame, because Binti herself is a great character that I’d love to see more of.

Book Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last isn’t as great a read as Oryx and Crake or The Robber Bride, and it’s not going to be a formative reading experience for me the way The Handmaid’s Tale or The Edible Woman were. And it’s not as meticulously excellent and perfectly curated as Atwood’s most recent story collection, Stone Mattress. Even still, The Heart Goes Last is something special, because I honestly believe that’s the only kind of work Margaret Atwood is capable of producing.

The story follows Stan and Charmaine, a down-on-their-luck couple who are just one couple of millions that are trying to scrape by in the wake of an economic disaster. Charmaine waits tables at a sort of frightening bar, and they’re living together in their car when they hear about a new opportunity that sounds, frankly, too good to be true, but still a damn sight better than having to guard their car and move around daily in order to avoid marauding looters and rapists.

The basic gist of the Positron project is this: they will join a new sort of large scale intentional community where they will spend half their time living in a [pretty comfortable] prison (Positron) and the other half living in an idyllic town (Consilience) where they will have their own home, jobs, food, and security. In either place, they will be provided for and protected from the ongoing economic crisis in the outside world. Obviously, things are not as they seem, and the majority of the book deals with how Stan and Charmaine learn exactly how much they’ve screwed up and then how they try with mixed success to extricate themselves from a pretty messed up predicament.

It’s tempting to compare The Heart Goes Last to Atwood’s earlier dystopian work, and there are some similarities. With The Handmaid’s Tale, it shares its examination of gender and sexuality in a strictly planned and regimented society. With the MaddAddam books, it shares concerns about corporatism and other evils of late stage capitalism. However, Positron/Consilience is a sort of kitschy post-postmodern paradise that lacks the darkness and grit of either the Republic of Gilead or the MaddAddam trilogy.

And where neither The Handmaid’s Tale nor MaddAddam were devoid of Atwood’s signature wry humor, in The Heart Goes Last we’re treated to a sort of ever-present tongue in cheek sarcasm with high camp stylings. I feel like The Heart Goes Last needs to be adapted to film by John Waters. Or perhaps Richard O’Brien. Or both. I think it could work.

In any case, it’s a funny, funny book that is also weird as hell, and it has a core of tragedy that, as someone who has struggled economically in recent years (although I never did have to live in my car), I found sometimes a little too relatable. There was no point in the book where I just though “this is too absurd; I don’t believe this.” I mean, sure, some weird things happen, but the sort of absurd situational humor that Atwood employs retains just enough realism that I always felt like Stan and Charmaine could be real people. Their extreme ordinariness is a big part of the humor, but they’re never boring or banal. Instead I find the characters’ normalcy comforting, and it helps to ground a story that has enough bizarre details that it could easily be driven off the rails by its own silliness.

The Heart Goes Last isn’t a great Margaret Atwood novel, possibly due in part to its odd genesis (it began as a serial work on now-defunct Byliner). There are definitely places, mostly in the beginning, where it reads more like a set of loosely related vignettes about the same characters. It doesn’t start to feel like a proper novel in its own right until somewhere after the first third.

The thing is, “not a great Atwood novel” is still a distinct cut above most everything else being published. I wouldn’t recommend The Heart Goes Last to someone just discovering the author, but if you already love Margaret Atwood, you’ll want to read it.

[This review is based on a free ARC received through NetGalley.]

Book Review: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

I loved The Three-Body Problem when I read it earlier this year, but I wasn’t really certain what to expect from The Dark Forest, especially with a different translator from the first book. While I didn’t find it to be–overall–as compelling as I found its predecessor, I think The Dark Forest might be the better of the two books if it wasn’t for a sometimes clunky translation.

The difference in translation is subtle but apparent from the beginning, and this is exacerbated by a shift in style from the first book. The Dark Forest is largely an exploration of a couple of interlocking metaphors, relying largely on poetic language and imagery to discuss some heavy ideas. There’s not a ton of plot going on–basically, people are scrambling to figure out what to do about the impending alien apocalypse–and its story unfolds far more slowly than so few events seem to warrant.

It turns out that a four hundred year wait for aliens to arrive for an epic showdown isn’t all the exciting when the aliens have destroyed your ability to make scientific and technological advancements that might allow you to win. It’s mostly just one long, soul-crushing existential crisis punctuated by various smaller actual crises.

The book opens with a lovely metaphorical prologue, which is immediately engaging, although I felt as if some of the poetry of the language must be lost in translation, but then it’s a slog for the first three quarters before transforming into a riveting page turner in the last act. For most of the book, I just felt a little confused and frustrated because so little actually happens–and much of what does happen doesn’t really matter–but in the last hundred and fifty or so pages, it all comes together and makes sense. The translation is still sometimes awkward, but the extended metaphors that Liu has been weaving finally cohere in a climax that is smart and well worth the struggle to get to.

The Dark Forest‘s translation may not be up to the same standard as The Three-Body Problem‘s, but it’s still well-worth reading. It’s a clever, beautiful, and at times darkly hilarious book that both neatly fits into sci-fi traditions and continues to broaden the horizons of the genre with a refreshingly different perspective on perennial science fiction questions.

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

longwayThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is basically like if Firefly had a baby with Star Trek and then that baby had a baby with the best and most sensible elements of social justice Tumblr. It’s not a light read, exactly, but its ideology never overpowers the story being told, either. That said, “ideology” is really too strong a word for a message that pretty much amounts to “people should be nice to each other” coupled with “families come in all shapes and sizes.”

The Long Way starts with a pretty standard space opera character–the young person going out into space for the first time–but the book turns out to be mostly not from this character’s point of view. Instead, it’s actually a series of vignettes in chronological order, over the course of a wormhole drilling ship’s year-long trip to the center of the galaxy and from the perspective of several of the Wayfarer‘s crew.

I honestly have nothing negative to say about this book, and I don’t want to ruin any of the good things about it for people who haven’t read it yet by talking extensively about it here. It’s a book about tolerance and how people learn to live with each other, and it particularly explores different concepts of family, both biological and constructed. It’s a book about the potential of humanity, but it also deals frankly with how small we are in the grand scheme of things. It’s a dream of a future where we humans manage to turn out alright in spite of ourselves and where we find some company on our cosmic journey to being better than we are.

The Long Way is a deeply beautiful and profoundly optimistic book that you owe it to yourself to read if you love science fiction. Or if you just like people. Or even if you don’t like people but want to have some hope for them for a little while. Or if you really don’t like people, but do like aliens, because Becky Chambers writes great aliens. Just, you know, go read this book as soon as possible.

Coming out in the UK on August 13, 2015. And in paperback in the US in summer 2016.