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Mars Evacuees

5/5. Twelve-year-old girl is evacuated to Mars as the war with the aliens drags on. Then all the adults on the Mars base disappear.

Oh gosh, burble burble, this is woooooonderful. It's about war and fear of loss and actual loss and – go with me here – it is hilarious. The obvious comparison is The True Meaning of Smekday, which I also loved, and yeah, that's valid. Plucky and sarcastic kids accidentally reaching across the gulf of a species war to make a friend. But this book is also doing very different things. Like, in case this is relevant to anyone's interests, girls in space! Female friendship! Lady fighter pilots!

Also, this is going to make people who haven't read this book go "buh?" but the brilliance of this book, and the seriousness of it, are in its lightness. This book makes the education of child soldiers funny and endearing, okay, in a way that lifts you up and breaks your heart. It is this beautifully controlled but pell-mell first person narration, constrained by our narrator's youth and fear, illuminated by her irreverence. And it trips along, making you laugh and worry and laugh again. And then it stops, and takes a breath, a perfectly placed beat that makes you stop and clench your hands and say, oh very quietly.

It is just really, really good.
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Planetfall

4/5. Twenty years after a group of colonists follow a woman's post coma visions to settle on an alien planet, a surprise survivor born after the initial planetfall reaches the settlement. And then things start falling apart.

File this one under it was great. Never ever reading it again.

The narrator of this book – bisexual lady engineer in her seventies – is the sort of unreliable narrator who is mostly unaware of her unreliability. The first third of the book has that slow, creeping quality you get when this is done really well: you are following along, it's interesting, it's scifi, and then once in a while you go "wait…what?" And then you start to put things together, and the narrative pulls tighter and tighter, and the narrator's sense of overwhelming, impending disaster eats you up. This is one of the more terribly skillful renderings of someone with an anxiety disorder that I've ever read. And not just the narrator – her entire colonial society is gripped by it. So much so that I had to put the book down and walk away for two days in order to calm down. (I also nearly noped out of a huge huge public humiliation squick at a climactic moment, so take that under advisement).

So yeah. This is masterful, as psychological work. Psychological horror in some places. Not horror at mental illness, to be clear – the book is in other parts of its mechanism playing with some classic horror tropes, including Poe. The scifi elements are less successful, to my mind; I was frankly disappointed with that resolution in the last 5% of the book. It was reaching for something about the co-existence of religious belief and scientific belief, but it just didn't get there, I don't think.

Happy to supply specific spoilers/content notes in comments if desired.
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Children of Morrow and Treasures of Morrow by H.M. Hoover

3/5. Vintage (so vintage it's not even on Kindle) post-apocalyptic YA. Two pre-teens living in a repressive paternalistic micro-society run away, guided by the voices of other survivors they can hear in their heads.

So I think Children of Morrow might well be the first science fiction I ever read as a child. It's certainly the first that mattered. And it made a hell of an impression on me -- I've been looking for this book again for about twenty years. And here it is, with a sequel!

So anyway, this informed a lot of my narrative inclinations, I think. Probably filled the niche that Mercedes Lackey did for a lot of my peers in that this, too, is about the very special children who are isolated by their specialness and go on an arduous journey to find their true home.

I will say that, as a child, I didn't grasp the true creepiness of this world. It doesn't lie in the post destruction Northern California landscape, as I thought, or in the violence inherent in the society the protagonists flee. No, the creepiness is solidly in the home they flee to, which is cozily nonviolent . . . oh and also deeply and quietly oppressive. I honestly can't tell what Hoover thought she was doing here; much is made of Morrow's superiority in intelligence which, it is implied, explains its lack of gendered power structures. And which also underlies its, um, restrictive breeding program. Awk-ward. I honestly can't tell what is irony and what is genuine enthusiasm for a "better world." A lot less irony going around than I would like, is where I came down.

It's also amazing what you don't remember. I had zero recollection of the rather casual mention of a prior abduction and forced impregnation, I imagine because I didn't understand it at all (see also: Morrow is totally morally superior you guys, ahahahahah. Ha. Ha). The WTF faces I made when that came up were quite epic.

Points for nostalgia. And for the landscape, which pried open bits of my pre-teen brain that had never seen light before. And for young children of power. But yikes.
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Lightless

3/5. A "research" space vessel is invaded by two "thieves", and the three-person crew is joined by an interrogator from the totalitarian solar system government bent on getting one of the captured prisoners to talk. Meanwhile, the ship computer is slowly coming to consciousness.

I'm being a bit unfair giving this a 3/5. What I'm really doing there is giving myself a bit of room, because this is a debut, and while it's really very good, I'm going on record now and saying that one of C.A. Higgins's later books is going to be a knockout. So I'm rating on that entirely speculative scale. It's a compliment.

This is tense and twisty and claustrophobic. The entire book encompasses the inside of a single spaceship whose every nook and cranny is under surveillance, populated by a cast of fewer than ten characters. Yet the story it tells – alternating between the mental duel of the interrogation and the increasingly desperate efforts of the ship's architect to understand what is happening to it –is also the story of a revolt against totalitarianism playing out in the wider solar system. The word "controlled" comes to mind when trying to describe this book. Maybe "poised." Not words I use for debuts very often.

The tension of this one lingers.
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Planet of Twilight: Star Wars (Star Wars - Legends)

2/5. Sequel at one remove to Children of the Jedi. That one I liked; this one had one redeeming feature, and the rest can go to hell.

So for any completists out there, the intervening book between Children of the Jedi and this one in the loose sequence is Darksaber, which I skipped because I remember it and also it was written by a dude and I'm not reading books by dudes at the moment. Kevin J. Anderson, no less. You guys have fun with that shoot-em-up.

Anyway, in this book, a lot of deeply boring stuff happens, culminating in a boring and entirely predictable conclusion that has been done at least three or four times in every major science fiction continuity ever, yawn. Rendered rather intolerable by Luke Skywalker, who is being a super creepy stalker ex-boyfriend who does not understand the word "no" at all, what the fuck. His obnoxious inability to deal with being broken up with sort of makes sense if you realize he's in his early thirties and that was, like, his first relationship ever, so yeah, he reacted like a thwarted teenager because in romantic terms, he's still basically fifteen. But ugh so so so gross, and the book expects us to have massive sympathy for him, which, uh, wait, let me think about it, nope. Get a fucking grip, Luke.

The one bright spot: Threepio and Artoo have a marvelous roadtrip subplot in which they bounce around a sector together, from smuggler ship to impound facility to warzone. At one point they attempt to earn passage by making themselves into a band. Artoo is the drummer. Obviously. At another juncture they are sent by bulk mail. It's great, basically. Two stars for Threepio and Artoo.
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Children of the Jedi: Star Wars: Star Wars Series (Star Wars - Legends)

4/5. Star Wars expanded universe. Leia and Han follow rumors of a hideout where Jedi children were protected from the purges, while Luke gets trapped on a thirty-year-old imperial battle cruiser controlled by a malevolent artificial intelligence, and haunted by the ghost of the Jedi woman who died trying to destroy it.

I'm not gonna front; I like this book partially because of just how much hordes of Star Wars fanboys haaaaaaate it.

Oh, hey, did I mention this is that relatively rare beast, a Star Wars book written by a woman? Gosh I can't imagine why I felt it necessary to insert that sentence after my last paragraph, it must be coincidence, huh how weird.

So anyway, I hadn't read this since I was a teenager. I remembered it as an unusually complex and rich EU book, and I was absolutely right. That doesn't mean it's successful in what it's doing, but by God, it's doing a lot of stuff.

I could actually write a couple thousand words about this and why it's so interesting to me, but I don't have time. Short version: this book is thematically about being a remnant person: the young man whose partner could not surrender him to disease so she built a droid to hold his memories, and the Jedi trapped in the gunnery computer for thirty years. The book cycles through multiple iterations of struggle with this, and like a lot of scifi, it has a strong bias towards discounting any kind of life that doesn't comfortably match narrow notions of proper embodiment. But it tries; there are several touching and strange conversations in which various people struggle with how they seem to have lost themselves in losing their bodies. I entirely agree with Luke's response that you are who you are right now. You're never not yourself, he means, you're just a displaced you, or a frightened you, or a transformed you.

And related to that thematic line are repeated instances of co-opted self-determination. Artoo, for example, is at one point forced to spoiler ), and in parallel the droid holding the memories of that young man I mention above is forced by a restraining bolt to watch his partner imprisoned, and to do nothing. The book plays with these, and with choices taken away – from the ghost Jedi when she was left to die, from Luke, at the end of this book.

So yeah, there's a whole lot more here than there usually is in the EU. I think it's ultimately unsuccessful, to say nothing of problematic. For one thing, Hambly is forced to wrestle with one of the fundamental moral flaws of the Star Wars universe, which would like us to believe that droids are not sentient beings while also encouraging us to love them as sentient beings. You cannot spend any serious time thinking about Star Wars without coming to the conclusion that all of our heroes are, in fact, slave-owners. And, well, Hambly doesn't have a handle on this, because it's a really big fucking problem. She tries – there's a great conversation where Luke is trying to talk to someone about self-definition, and Threepio keeps interjecting with his entirely different viewpoint – but it's not enough. And she just can't fundamentally bring herself to credit nonstandard forms of life as valid, not when push comes to shove. That's what I think a couple of the key deaths at the end of this book are entirely about. But that said, it's a damn interesting book.

So yeah, the fanboys hate it because there's, like, a romance (which I'm meh on myself, actually), and Luke spends the whole book physically and mentally disabled by pain, which is apparently not acceptable, and because, well, we all know why the fanboys hate it, let's be real. But I like it, so there.
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The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow series)

4/5. The lone survivor of the first Jesuit mission (get it?) to Alpha Centauri makes it home and tells his story to a largely hostile audience.

I have mixed feelings about the Jesuit community, which I bring up because it quite neatly parallels my feelings on this book. For reasons, I know a lot of Jesuits – actual priests, I mean – and they are in general the sort of excellent people who thrive more the harder the work is, and who treat Ph.D.'s like a nice lark but okay where's the next one. On the other hand, I received healthcare from a Jesuit institution for several years, underwritten by a Jesuit-held insurance policy, and well. The misogyny embedded in that policy impacted my life in an incredibly expensive and painful way. So yeah. Love the people, still really, really angry at the institution. Except institutions are people – we like to pretend they're not, but they are – so it's complicated.

Anyway, this is a book about finding transcendence – in hard work beautifully done, in found family, in God – and then watching it all fall unto so much dust. So, kind of painful, then. I love good writing about transcendence, which this definitely is. Personally, my moments of transcendence are found in hard work beautifully done, in music, and in endurance sports, except as an atheist I like to be alone with myself in those moments, whereas several of the characters in this book are reaching for God.

So this book is beautiful, and wonderful, and funny, and sad. But I have mixed feelings, because this book is confronting trauma, and how awful it Is to be a trauma survivor who has been trained to believe that everything happens for a reason. And I think that ultimately this book leans too hard on the bystander perspective of people who weren't fucking there, and who didn't go through it, and who are, in the way of bystanders, really really eager to assign a comfortable reason and meaning for it all, and to impose that narrative on the survivor who doesn't want it. All of this framed in explicitly religious narratives (along with a lot of more or less poisonous general notions about the survivors of rape and prostitution). And this book is challenging these narratives, but only to a point. But maybe this is the point where my atheism gets in the way. Maaaaaaybe.

Also, I dearly wish the twist of vicious social commentary in this book had been drawn out further. Russell makes it explicit once and only once that, in judging this alien culture, we are failing to look in the mirror first. And given that this book is at its heart about predators – alien, many of the humans in Sophia's life, providence from Emilio's perspective at certain points – the congruences could have been more sharply drawn. It would have been a more obvious book, and an angrier one. But it would have brought out the . . . parable buried in the science fiction elements, and I think that actually would have been a benefit.

Anyway, I'll be thinking about this for a while. And I suspect when I read it again, I will have to think all over again.
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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

4/5. ARC. I don't have an overarching summation, so here, have some bullet point thoughts:

• This is A Civil Campaign level plotless social drama. By which I mean the social drama is the plot. This book has a climactic picnic scene, okay. Not nearly as funny as ACC, though.

• Portions of this book are set inside a futuristic fertility clinic, and it made me smile, because yeah. Fertility clinics are fuckin' weird, and conceiving by science is fuckin' weird, and this book had a finger nicely on that.

• Lois McMaster Bujold learned the word 'monosexual,' you guys! *wipes tear*. She still, unfortunately, has not quite grasped that one's sexuality in re the genders one is attracted to is an entirely separate facet from one's sexuality in re how many partners one wishes to have. Which is weird, considering just how many people have taken her to task over the year's for Cordelia's infamous summation of Aral: "He used to be bisexual, now he's monogamous." (Hint: bisexual doesn't actually mean simultaneously banging people of two different genders. A bisexual person doesn't become straight by marrying someone of another gender, or queer by marrying smoene of the same gender. No really, my extended family, I still get to be bisexual, fuck right off). Aaaaanyway, despite having apparently regreted the prior Cordelia observation, LMB still doesn't seem to quite get it. And more fundamentally . . . for anyone who doesn't know, I guess this is a spoiler? Though I'd assume everyone knows by now – this book is about what happens when there is a long-term V relationship with occasional jaunts into triangle, and then the point of the V dies, and how the two left come back to each other, eventually. And this book is . . . very concerned with people's queerness, and like, negative a million percent concerned with polyamory. I exaggerate there are a few throwaway comments on that aspect, but by and large, this book just doesn't . . . notice? It's like, the queerness of the queerness all but swallows the queerness of the poly, which are two very different things, thankyouverymuch. And that disappointed me.

• I said it before on twitter when the spoilers first broke, and I'll say it again: Miles spending decades of adolescent and adult life oblivious to his parents's queerness and polyamory is A++++++. Because yep. He would

• Things I quite liked: this is a book about single parenting by choice, and non-traditional families, and gamete donation, and yeah, that was really good for me.

• Less good. Everyone must have babies. Everyone. Everyone. Babies are not optional. If you are in this verse and you think you do not want babies, well, that's just because you didn't think about it right, and as soon as a real possibility is presented to you, babies you will want and babies you will have. Babies babies babies.

• Another thing I liked: Cordelia is living a long, varied life. She is in her seventies here, embarking on the fourth or fifth major life change. There is a lovely and subversive sense of her as a woman in her prime, in the middle of it all. And also a lovely evocation of how an ideal long-lived future might be, where you could have multiple successive phases of family-building and work, and family-building again, on the scale of decades, without being rushed by biology. Being rushed by loss and grief, though, of course.

• I miss Gregor. I have always, always wanted the Gregor book that Vor Game was actually not.

• This book feels like an end, in a way none of the prior books that were maybe sorta an end did. I don't know why, it just does. I'd be okay with that, actually.
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Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Lost Stars

3/5. Star Wars expanded universe, spanning about fifteen years before, during, and after the original trilogy. The best of friends grow up together, fly together, go to the imperial academy together. And then Alderaan happens, and they start asking questions. But the answers they arrive at are very different, and take one through defection to the alliance, and the other up the imperial command chain.

So, confession: Star Wars was my first fandom. Like 'make up dreamy nonsensical fanfic playlets in my head while my second grade teacher droned on and on about things I already knew' fandom.

I suspect this is Claudia Gray's fanfic. Except hers is way way way better than mine. Hers is thoughtful and humane. The two main characters love each other deeply, and agree on most basic points of philosophy and ethics. But that takes them in opposite directions for utterly plausible reasons. They argue, and get mad, and get hurt, and they don't understand each other, except how they still do, to the very end. The catchphrase of this book is look through my eyes, which says a lot.

And, I mean, there's only so much depth and sympathy you can add to the imperial cause when they actually named the thing the Death Star. Because, uh, like, what did anyone think it was for? But Gray does a damn sight better than anyone else I've ever read.

That was nice.
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Time Salvager

2/5. In a far future dystopic solar system, time operatives go into the past to steal its resources. Until one operative – let's call him Mr. Manpain – brings someone forward because she has a vagina and he wants to get in it.

Okay, I am getting kind of uncanny. Ugh, I thought, halfway through this book, I bet this got optioned for a movie. Bingo. Michael Bay will direct. Why oh why is it that I can spot a terrible summer blockbuster at fifty paces? But also can't spot a book that would make a good movie with a map and directions?

Anyway, whatever, I anticipated every "twist" this book had to offer, because duh, and hissed and winced as it treated every woman as an object to be killed or saved by/for a man, and complained with increasing grumpiness about why we couldn't get more of some of the interesting worldbuildy bits and less of, you know, everything else. Particularly Mr. Manpain, blech.

So very much not seeing the movie.
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Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

4/5. I backed this collection on Kickstarter and got an early release copy. Took me a while to get through it, though, so it seems to be out now.

The introduction to this collection specifically notes it is not intended to be a full survey. Which it isn't, and shouldn't be. It's just unfortunate that – and I knew this going in – the Vandermeers and I have very different tastes. They really like the Weird and the surreal, and I often don't. I spent the full first third of this collection sighing a lot in boredom and complaining to my wife about stories whose entire purpose is to turn women into thematically significant animals or objects. You know the sort of thing. It's not my thing. Those of you who do enjoy it, I wish you well of it.

Anyway, I still enjoyed this, and do recommend it. This introduced me to a lot of authors I was only peripherally aware of before, and made me think. Some brief story notes on a few pieces that jump out as I look back.

Ursula K. Le Guin, "Sur" – One of my favorites. Tale of the women who were secretly first to reach the South Pole. Beautiful and restrained and warm and cold at the same time.

Susan Palwick, "Gestella" – This story of a werewolf aging at a different rate than her (misogynist) husband was the most viscerally upsetting in the whole collection, to my mind. I almost didn't read the last page, but ultimately made myself. I owed it to the protagonist.

Nalo Hopkinson, "The Glass Bottle Trick" – A Bluebeard story, told, frighteningly, from within his home.

Joanna Russ, "When It Changed" – Another version of 'men arriving into a society of all women.' And a good one. Not particularly subtle, but the thing is it needed to be unsubtle, because the patriarchal assumptions it is pushing against are too pervasive for many readers to see around without a lot of help.

Octavia E. Butler, "The Evening the Morning and the Night" – Hm. I had a lot of issues with this story of living with impending disability, and ultimately I shook my head over it. But I was engaged, I'll give it that.

Hiromi Goto, "Tales from the Breast" – One of the few Weird stories that really worked for me. Hallucinatory and disturbing story of post delivery and breastfeeding.

Carol Emschwiller, "Boys" – Hm. Sort of interesting (post apocalyptic? Unclear) story of a gender-separated society, that gets less interesting the more I think about it, because the more I think about it the more I realize the story doesn't work unless you base it on a lot of gender essentialist assumptions before the first word was in place. Which might have been part of her point. Or not. Also unclear.
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3/5. Sequel to the wonderful True Meaning of Smekday. Tip and J.Lo go on an interstellar adventure. By car. Like you do.

Is this the weird and wonderful and touching Smekday? Nope. Is it the story I wanted? Well, it's not about J.Lo taking the place of J.Lo as a judge on American Idol, so no (seriously, Yuletide, why have you not made this happen? I am disappointed in you).

This is a silly cute adventure that is far less subtle and far more shallow than Smekday, but it has a heart and a sense of fun. And I am just never going to be one of those people who thinks a really awesome thing is ruined by a less awesome thing also existing. Like . . . what? Can someone who believes in this theory of art explain it to me? Because no lo comprendo. But you hear this all the damn time – from people who read a lot of fanfic, no less! About how the sequel ruined it by existing and, like, not being as good. I mean, I'm all for – whatsit – intertextual readings and of course no piece of art exists in a vacuum, but how does it ruin something beautiful?
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2312

2/5. Solar system scifi with – I understand – KSR's usual interest in environmental issues.

I've been sitting on this review for weeks, which turns out to be long enough to have forgotten most salient facts of this book. Which tells you something right there. But the thing is – everyone said I'd like this. It was all "interesting gender ideas!" and "post humans that push our boundaries but are all still very us!"

And I . . . didn't think so. At all.

Like, either I missed some key early turning in this book. I am very, very busy this spring, and very, very tired, so yeah. Maybe there was some path it should have led me down and I just wandered on by, head down in my commute, and then looked up two days later to wonder where this floppy, start-stop, confused book was going.

Or maybe. Or maybe the "interesting gender stuff" is just a thin layer of speculation over the same old shit. Maybe he interleaved so many fake nonfiction excerpts to explain this culture because he can't, on more than the most surface level, make these people live those lives. Maybe this is pretending to be a story of flowering biological and gender possibilities, except it's funny how comfortable it all is. Like not a single pronoun in this book challenged me. We get lots of nonfiction excerpts and the occasional passing reference to a central characters non-binary sexual identity, but hey everyone's pronouns are familiar and comfy and the relationships are heteronormative.

Yeah. One of those.
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3/5. So the moon blows up. I mention this in passing, which I feel is appropriate, because in this book the moon blows up due to the actions of some presumably alien unknown agent, and this book gives negative fucks about the who or the why. Whatever, handwave, let's follow the admittedly harrowing adventures of the few thousand surviving humans who escape into space, and then skip ahead five thousand years to their descendants coming back.

Yikes. A goodreads friend said that this book is what happens when you send an engineer to do an anthropologist's job, which is bang on. Basically . . . oh Neal Stephenson NO.

It's always telling what an author insists on getting right and what he doesn't give a fuck about. Neal Stephenson really, really, really wants you to know that he thought long and hard about orbital mechanics and – it appears – did a decent amount of back-of-the-napkin math to back up his made up technological innovations here.

On the list of things he can not be bothered to have basic facts on? Women's bodies. Which is a telling oversight for a book which is greatly concerned with how to rebuild the human population from a tiny remnant containing only a very few women. According to this book, how fertility preservation science works is a man and a woman have sex, she gets pregnant, and the embryo (and all zillion branches of the trophoblast and placenta? Apparently?) are, like, scraped out of her and flash frozen. Apparently he never bothered learning what the V in IVF stands for. Also according to this book, post menopausal women cannot bear children. This is (1) incorrect – of course they can, just not with their own eggs; and (2) presented as fact in a situation where there are literally less than 10 human wombs in existence, and everyone desperately needs to start making babies. Except apparently the menopausal woman? Even though they are all using advanced reproductive technology to get pregnant? And it makes zero sense not to ask her to gestate embryos with someone else's genetics? But oh wait that would have required knowing about lady things.

So there you have Neal Stephenson. By god the science behind some made up technology had better be right, but don't bother him with women's business.

And don't get me started on – okay, if I really get going on the last third of the book, we will be here all day. Can I do this briefly? Because it's worth doing, it really is.

The first two thirds of this book are gripping extreme survival porn. Like, really gripping. Full of amazing female friendship and adventure and bravery and sacrifice. See that 3/5 up there? That's the first two-thirds. And yeah, the human emotion part is really slipshod, but okay, whatever, we're too busy talking about how you move a megaton ice comet around, so okay.

And then we jump ahead five thousand years to – and I'm not spoiling this, it's on the jacket copy – a time when seven new "races" of humanity have propagated. And there's a whole lot of authorsplaining about this, and I was like 'blah blah blah, can we go back to the space adventures?' until Stephenson authorsplained that in this future, racism doesn't exist anymore.

*Record scratch*.

The entire last third of the book is an exercise in racism. On the Watsonian level, every. Single. Character spends 90% of their social energy on categorizing everyone by race, explaining each tiny behavior and quirk as racially based (down to posture, personality, conversational style, everything). The joke I made was that it had suddenly turned into Divergent in space. The not funny part is none of these people are allowed to be people: they are all, to every nuance, racial types. And on the Doylist level, you know what these new races are defined by?

Yeah. Awkward. They're defined by specifically twenty-first century racial stereotypes. Like the descendants of the Asian woman are all focused on intelligence and achievement. And the descendants of the Muslim woman value being quiet and helpful and invisibly accommodating, like servant wives.

But there's no more racism, don't you know.

In future, he really needs to stick with the duct-tape-spit-and-hope space survival, and not touch sociology ever, ever, ever, ever again. To say nothing of race relations, JFC.
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My Name Is Legion

2/5. In a computerized future where everyone is publicly databased (and by future I mean 2005), one of the programmers writes himself out and becomes a hired gun.

That deeply awkward thing where an author thinks he's writing an intriguing and philosophical work about a sexy, interestingly sad lone wolf … and he's actually writing about a mass-murdering terrorist.

Man, I have just been picking wrong with Zelazny lately. My one solace through this painful, wanky, fridgey slog was deconstructing Zelazny's notion of future. It's always fun reading old scifi whose "future" is our now; it's not about the ways they projected technology incorrectly, it's about the many things you can learn about a person by the social projections they make into the unknown. Like, in Zelazny's future, everyone is still a smoker, and more importantly, smoking is still sexy. Remember that? And more interestingly, the world is entirely digitized and largely transparent; our protagonist has some vague misgivings about this, but nowhere in this entire book does a single person ever make an argument based in privacy rights.

Any old hack can be all, "we'll have undersea domed cities in 50 years!" and make it plausible. It's the rare talent who can dislocate his sense of social place into the unknown. In Zelazny's defense, that was really not the project of the majority of his milieu. I'm being spoiled by rainbow SF, which has as a central premise de-centering social assumptions – what is attractive and what is not, what is polite and what is not, what is violence and what is not.

But still. Everybody smoked, and that's sexy.
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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel

3/5. Fictional memoir focusing on a stretch of time in college for our narrator, whose sister is gone and whose brother is in the wind.

Okay, I tend to be moderate on the spoiler question as a general rule, but in this case I strongly recommend against reading the jacket copy. Because it will tell you the sorta science-fictional "twist" to this book, whereas when the book tells you – about a quarter of the way through, IIRC – is so artfully precise and well-calculated, and you should not let an idiot publisher fuck that up for you. That space before you know the score is incredibly important for what this book is doing with families and kin and self.

Because damn kids, Karen Joy Fowler is good. I'd gotten that vague impression from people, but no one told me she can do funny and bitter in the same sentence, or that she can control such a complicated narrative and make it look effortless.

This is a titch more literary than I tend to bother with, and noticeably less spec fic. And it upset me in places. Exactly, I should note, the places intended to upset me. And I kind of don't ever want to read it again. But. It is very, very good at what it is doing.

Here's the thing I really admire about this book though. Could be spoilery, vaguely ) So yeah. I admire that.

Content note: Animal harm. Like….a lot. There isn't actually a lot on screen, with a few exceptions, but animal harm permeates the book. See above re how this is really good but I don't want to read it again.
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The Girl With All the Gifts

4/5. So the National Library Service description of this book is all, "blah blah post zombie apocalypse, gifted young girl is infected and held in military custody, emergency cross-country road trip through zombie-infested England while her humanity is debated."

And I went siiiiiiiigh, because can we – with the debating of humanity – can we just fucking stop. This is a thing that a certain subset of vampire/zombie/creature fiction is really interested in: who is human and, more importantly it seems, who is not? And I hate these narratives. Hate them. The authors appear to think they are probing at something important and meaningful, whereas from my perspective – well. Let's put it this way: slavery didn't exist in the United States because no one had thought of the concept of human rights. Far from it. Slavery was maintainable because it was decided, collectively and systematically, that Africans were not human beings. That's what this boundary drawing is always for, ultimately: deciding whether someone is human or not is a proxy way of deciding whether they are an object or a person. Objects can't be raped because they don't have consent. Objects can't be assaulted; they can be damaged, as property, but that damage is done to the owner. And let's not fool ourselves that these decisions come down to sentience or intelligence; history begs to differ.

So for me, a lot of supernatural fiction is participating in one of the oldest acts of social aggression there is: deciding who counts and who doesn't. And I think the entire endeavor is corrupt from start to finish. It's not interesting. It's not deep. It's not philosophical. It doesn't reflect on the true nature of humanity. It's just a tool of violence being co-opted for fiction.

Um. Anyway. Now that I've gotten that off my chest. This book isn't that, and it's great!

Things this book doesn't care about: (1) who is human and who is not; (2) Endless – or really any -- authorial wanking about the contours of this dystopic society.

Fuck yes.

Things this book does care about: (1) A very smart little girl; (2) giving me the cold horrors as a person who can barely stand to touch mushroom flesh (this will not likely apply to other readers, but ugh, zombies through fungus infection AAAAUGH); (3) the last thing to come out of Pandora's box.

It is grim as fuck and difficult to read in places, and mesmerizingly good. And it's kind of obvious, looking back on it, and yet I was so busy being wrapped up in it that I didn't bother clocking the overarching narrative. And that overarching narrative – it's not just that it isn't concerned with who's human and who's not, it's that it actively rejects the question.

So really good, then.

P.s. M.R. Carey is a not-really-pseud for Mike Carey, the Hellblazer guy and urban fantasy guy.
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Get in Trouble: Stories

4/5. Specfic short stories. The first time I read Kelly Link years ago, I found her fuckin' weird to the point of incomprehensibility, and I liked it. Now I read her and I find her fuckin' weird just barely to the point of comprehensibility, and it's still great. I don't know if she changed her style or I became a more complex reader – both, probably – but it's still working for me.

One of the stories in this collection, "I Can See Right Through You," is available to read online. It's not my favorite from the collection, but it gives an entirely accurate sense of what she does and how: pop cultural commentary that almost fools you by pretending to be obvious, until you think about it a little bit and go wait . . . what the fuck? You can also read the opening story "The Summer People" online. I kept trying to reduce this story to a class metaphor, because yeah, it's totally doing that, but let's be real, that's the least of what it's doing.

My favorite story in this collection isn't available online, unfortunately. That would be "Secret Identity," the story of a teenaged girl at a hotel where a superhero convention and a dentist convention are taking place. She's there to meet her internet boyfriend, who thinks she's in her thirties. I'm making this sound tiresome, but it's actually about refrigerators and sidekicks and users and dentists and it's freakin amazing, okay.

And then there's "Origin Story," the one about the woman meeting her superhero boyfriend in an old theme park, and "Light," about the woman with a twin born out of her shadow and pocket universes and mystery sleepers and hurricanes, and and and.
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The Three-Body Problem (Three Body, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


A scientist is drawn into a conspiracy involving a computer game and an old research station and extra-terrestrial life.

Translated from the original Chinese. I have to admit I read this book mostly because the way it's being talked about made me really uncomfortable. There's the contingent who want to treat it as some sort of referendum on the Chinese science fiction landscape, or Chinese literature in general, as it was a wildly successful bestseller there. Yeah, okay, tell you what – go take a look at this week's NY Times bestseller list and pick out the book we should translate into other languages for readers to judge as a referendum on all of American writing of that genre. I'll wait. And then there's the way the translator responded to criticism by making a lot of sweeping statements about Chinese writing that I have very little doubt, even in the absence of any personal expertise, are dubious at best. This book is occupying some weird space in reviewerland, is what I'm saying.

So I read it, and. Um. It's not very good. Flat characters, some shall we say eyebrow raising decisions regarding women, a lot of but humans don’t human that way, etc. Which kind of figures, since if notions of best seller can be translated, then this book is Chinese Tom Clancy. So . . . there you go.

It did intrigue me on behalf of other Chinese science fiction, though. The cultural context of this story – the asides about how communism impacted intellectual thought, for example – interested me more than anything else.

I generally have a pretty good nose for these things, though, and I smell movie deal, for what that's worth.



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Burning ParadiseBurning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Alternate history scifi about a subtle alien organism surrounding the earth and nudging the course of history towards peace for its own ends.

Bafflement. Robert Charles Wilson, what happened to you? How did the guy who wrote Spin phone in something so shallow and pointless? This is a fertile concept – humans confronting the idea that prosperity and peace are artificially imposed from without, and having to decide what to do about it. You could really go places with that. This book utterly fails to. It flails around a bit with some stilted interpersonal nonsense, drops a few obvious twists and sets up more plot holes than most Stargate episodes, and then limps to a vague conclusion type thing. There isn't even enough there here for me to get my teeth in for some real complaining. I can't, because there's not enough substance.

Seriously, his back catalog is kind of shaky, but this was recently published and we know what he can do. What the hell happened to RCW?




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