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Tigana: Anniversary Edition

4/5. Years ago, a conquering wizard cursed the land of Tigana out of existence. Only those born on its soil can say its name, or remember it exists, and they will slowly die out as their children forget. A small pack of minstrels set out to bring it back.

I really liked this. And I wish I didn't.

I mean, what a great concept, right? This is what I wish fantasy was more often about, turning magic upon some of the fundamental ways we organize ourselves as people, and wrecking those ways, and seeing what happens. Here it's a nation silently erased, a people scattered and forced never to speak of their home. I mean, the injustice of this worked on me, of all people,* so you know the book is good.

That said, wow how much do I wish our copyright system was more sensible and someone could officially remix this book now. Someone like Leckie, say, or Jemisin, or de Bodard, or Monette, maybe. Someone, uh, not GGK.

Because, well. In the beginning of this book, as one of the protagonists was introduced and we found out he was queer, I instantly thought spoiler ) and yuuuup, called it. Not only that, but more spoilers ) Which is not even starting on the concubines, because of course there is a concubine, there is always a sexual captive in GGK's books, always, he has a sexuality, you guys, and it encompasses all varieties of women as concubine/sex slave/prostitute, and every time I read a book of his I get that bit more skeeved out. Anyway, without spoilers this time, what happens to the concubine – what the narrative ordains as her just path – makes me seethingly angry.

So this is a beautiful book. Truly. It touched me in a way I fully expected it not to. But it's also by GGK, so it's wildly overwrought, and, well, fucking gross in a lot of ways. And I wish someone else had written it, because that book, written by the right person, could be one of the best books I've ever read.

*I'm one of the least nationalistic people you're likely to meet. I take no pride in my country, or all the handwringing despair most of my friends seem to; either of those would require believing that my country actually exists as an identity in any meaningful way, other than a nonsense concept people trot out for rhetorical convenience. None of this particularly matters for daily life. I just blank out any sentences including "America is" or that otherwise attempt to claim some sort of meaningful national identity. Oh, and I find the Olympics a nearly intolerable exercise in mindless jingoism. This book worked on me anyway, largely because it focused on the destruction of culture as the true evil done (which is right, I think –there's a reason that cultural destruction, even without the taking of life, is considered a kind of genocide). The book (I think? I read this in June and my notes are somewhat . . . unclear) treats identity as synonymous with that culture, which I don't think is right, but that's not really the point, and it worked on me anyway.
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The Shepherd's Crown (Tiffany Aching)

3/5. The last Discworld book.

Well, that's that, then.

It's not a particularly inspired book, but nor is it the dire mess of some of the recent offerings. Not too surprising, I guess – it's basically the same book he'd written four or five times previously, so clearly the steps were familiar: threat from outside, faeries, how the progress of technology and particularly the railroad changes the face of the world, coming into power as a function of coming into self-knowledge.

No, all that, *handwave*. Been there, done that, and much better than this version.

No, this book is made by the first quarter, which is all about the death of a witch. And as constant Discworld readers will know, a witch is aware of her impending death, and is able – required, even – to prepare for it. Dig her own grave, do the final washing up, scrub the place until it shines. And then lie down and wait.

The first quarter of this, the last Discworld book, is about that. And, um. Ouch.
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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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Fair Play (All's Fair Book 2)

4/5. M/M mystery featuring a retired FBI agent turned college professor digging into his father's radical past.

Brains are scary sometimes. I read the prequel to this book five years ago over a long night of hospital waiting. I finished the sequel on Thursday in a waiting room. During surgery this time, not after, but jeez! I totally did not plan that. Well, not purposefully, anyway.

Anyway. Needless to say, this series is tied up with medical stress for me. The sequel was as appropriate as the first book – soothing, just involving enough to be useful, emotionally satisfying. Lanyon has such a good grip on writing established relationships; the tensions between them, the push-and-pull, the sense of working together to build something difficult but lasting. They both struggle with trust in this book, and their mutual intimacy issues, and, uh, yeah, this works for me.

Now I just hope the next book isn't timed for another surgery.

Note: Kindle version is currently $3.99, which I assume is some sort of sale. Then again, M/M pricing is a continual mystery and puzzlement to me, so.

Other note: So Josh Lanyone "came out" as a woman, and . . . yeah. Thanks for that live fire demonstration of how you are utterly steeped in misogyny, pro M/M community. Jesus.
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Stranger on the Shore

3/5. M/M. A reporter investigates a twenty-year-old child abduction, and clashes sexily with the attorney of the victim's wealthy family.

A good book that wasn't to my taste. Lanyon does these standalone mysteries that exist somewhere in the hinterland between pastiche, homage, and fanfic. Here, the predecessor work is The Great Gatsby, and well, I kind of loathe Gatsby, so this book's contemplations and gestures were lost on me. I mean, our protagonist is an outsider to wealth, which is part of the point of this book about outsiderness in your own life, but honestly . . . Gatsby. Meh.

But if you like Gatsby, or the sort of book where there would be haunting music playing in the distant background of every scene of the movie version, you'll like this, because it's Lanyon, so it's actually well done.

Note: If you are such a person, looks like the kindle edition is currently discounted.
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Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal Novel, A)

4/5. Napoleonic fantasy. The tale of the black man who finds himself, unwillingly and infamously, at the head of British magic, and what happens when Prunella comes into his life. Prunella being – well, rather indescribably marvelous.

Oh gosh, you guys, just go read this. It is witty and indulgent, in the way period fantasy must be. But it is also about the victims of imperialism, living their lot every day from the inside. It has balls and dragons and complicated families and faeries and the quiet, subtle slipping into love of two very alone people, and that crackle of wonder and mystery of magic. And Prunella, who is the best.

This delighted me, and entertained me, and occasionally upset me, in exactly the right proportions and the right ways.

Highly recommended.
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Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School Series Book 2) And Waistcoats & Weaponry (Finishing School Series Book 3)

3/5. A couple more titles in that young adult alt Victorian urban fantasy finishing spy school series.

There is something not quite right about this series. The adult titles maintain this airy soap bubble of frothy charm, and they make it look effortless. But there's some internal wobble in the young adult set that I can sort of put my finger on, but also sort of can't. Like, okay, in one of these books, our heroine is thinking about someone on the opposite side of a conflict from her, and notes that he's not bad, he's just evil. "Not that there was anything wrong with that." Which typifies this universe, and this series more specifically; it's not about good and evil having any particular valence, because good and evil are really just words that have a lot more to do with how people dress than anything.

That's the charming part.

But – here's where I get a bit hazy about it – but the racism. This is an AU where servants have been replaced largely with mechanized laborers, and yet – it is carelessly implied – there is still an African slave trade, and all that flows from that fact. It is still a scandal for a young lady to fall in love with a black laborer, specifically because of his race more than his class. And I just. Idk.

I guess I just really don't want to be reading a book whose charm is that evil is an esthetic choice, but oh also racism, ha ha. I'm not drawing this connection very clearly, but yeah. No. This series isn't right.
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Fated (Alex Verus Book 1), Cursed (Alex Verus Book 2), Taken (Alex Verus Book 3), Chosen (Alex Verus Book 4), Hidden (Alex Verus Book 5), and Veiled

3/5. Urban fantasy of the lone wolf dude mage gets an apprentice and friends and entangled in wizard politics variety. The series deliberately invites Dresden Files comparisons – there is a specific in-text reference to that wizard in Chicago who advertises in the Yellowpages very early on, as if Jacka wants to make the comparison before the reader does. So fine, I'll make the comparison. This is less misogynist than Dresden Files, significantly less D&D, but has basically the same damn backstory and broader world, the same lack of awareness of what noncon is, the same love for high school level discussions of morality, and the same addiction to battles with half the creativity. Also similarly, I love the supporting cast far more than the putative hero.

Fun popcorn reads. I did read all six, you'll note, though it's also worth pointing out I had pneumonia at the time.
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The Girl of Fire and Thorns

2/5. Young adult fantasy about the sixteen-year-old princess married off to a neighboring kingdom, at least before her destiny catches up with her.

A solid meh. I try not to judge young adult too harshly because I'm very bad at knowing what is age appropriate and what isn't (and I frequently question the validity of the concept in the first place), so I try not to condemn a book for younger readers on the basis that it's boring as wallpaper. It might be that boring to me, but what do I know, to an eleven-year-old, this might be revelatory.

Unfortunately, if I had charge of an eleven-year-old, I wouldn't want her receiving these revelations. About a fat heroine with an eating disorder, whose fatness and disorder are treated as the same thing, and who – of course – becomes thin as part of her journey to power. I mean, I don't always have a good eye for fatphobia, as a congenitally skinny person, but come on.

However, the holy navel piercing is pretty funny. Like, for real. We know the heroine is chosen of the gods because they give her a special godly stone in her bellybutton. I could not make that up.
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I've been thinking I would do one of those things where you read only women and genderqueer writers for a year (details still fuzzy). And I figured before I did that, I'd run through some of the male writers I've had on TBR for years.

Yeeeeeah. That's . . . convincing me that doing without men for a year is a fantastic idea.

I gave this classic epic fantasy four hundred pages. It's – you know the thing where you read so much work that is responding to the earnest, straight-up original that you forget the earnest, straight-up original actually exists? And then you read it and you're like whoa, what the fuck?

This is thousands of pages of epic fantasy about the pubescent kitchen boy in a castle becoming apprenticed to a wizard doctor and getting caught up in the magical fight for a disinherited prince and a kingdom overtaken by evil, and there are scary elves, and prophecies, and magic swords, and he's going to become a man, you guys. Oh yeah, and he has mysterious parentage. And it is

And I just. There aren't many women in those four hundred pages I read, not so's you'd notice. But there is a minute, obsessive interest in this pubescent boy, and I just.

I do not want to read thousands of earnest pages tracking the rate of descent of his testicles, you know? Like, there are so many better things I could be doing with my life.
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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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The Silvered

3/5. Tanya Huff in her taking self seriously mode, as opposed to my personal preference, her oh fuck it all, let's have fun shame is for the weak mode. Which is annoying, because as usual with Huff, I read this while sick, and let's just say that taking self seriously Huff is not what I'm looking for at that juncture.

This is some standard magic and werewolves in fantasy war scenario, with some bonus torture porn that I really did not appreciate, and, well. It's funny how, even when she is not writing about bestiality, Huff manages to write about bestiality, y'know? Y'know. Like, no bestiality appears on these pages! And yet you are clearly supposed to be going there in your head every ten seconds. I'd much rather she'd just written it herself, as she clearly likes to do.

I guess what I'm circling around saying here is that taking self seriously Huff doesn't think shame is for the weak, and it shows. Her taking self seriously books are always kind of flat to me, weirdly constrained, weirdly stiff. Like those boring space marines books. None of the joy or kinky don't give a fuckness of her not taking self seriously books.

I know which I prefer.
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Prudence (The Custard Protocol)

4/5. Cute steampunk adventure set a generation after the Parasol Protectorate books.

Just the thing for that week where you're five days into being sick and still getting sicker, not better. Fun, frothy, and occasionally downright pleasing (our largely virginal lady heroine makes advances upon a young gentleman, and she is rightly concerned about the state of his delicate sensibilities and nerves at various points. He's fragile, you know).

As usual, I'm not quite sure how seriously to take these books. On the one hand, their entire point is not to be taken seriously. On the other hand, this one includes an offhand, if apparently sincere, defense of imperialism? So, uh, okay? Everyone should eat more custard and we should have another couple pages discussing Victorian fashion, how about that.
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Dangerous Ground

3/5. Collection of novellas about partners in a made up government security service who do a lot of running and shooting punctuated by sleeping together. And good grief, he really really likes his law-enforcement/military guys, doesn't he?

There's nothing wrong with this – Lanyon can write, which distinguishes him from a lot of people in this genre – but there's also nothing right, specifically for me. My favorite thing about Lanyon is that he likes established relationship as much as I do, because he understands that the hard part doesn't end when you get together, it's just starting. So his established relationship stories are full of negotiation and work, and I love that.

But the particular work here is the work of a couple where one of them is way more into it than the other is – or at least that's the way they both perceive it, at various points – and it's just . . . not what I came for. Not what I come to this genre for, specifically. Other people may really enjoy this, because it is a grown up, thoughtful examination of that dynamic. I just don't like that dynamic. Probably because the worst relationship of my life, in retrospect, was the one where I was the one way less into it, and argh, nope, that is not the fun relaxing brain candy place.
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BLACK UNICORN (Ibooks Fantasy Classics)

3/5. Young adult fantasy back from when the genre as we understand it today didn't exist.

Read for the obvious reason. This made me think about Diana Wynne Jones, and Narnia, and, weirdly, Fullmetal Alchemist. It's not exactly like any of those, that's just the context in which I was reading it. The DWJ because this is quite a young book, but the writing has that flickering, fast-moving quality where it can deliver an improbable plot twist or a painfully precise observation in less than five words and keep right on going like nothing just happened. Narnia because of a fuckin' weird direction this book goes in the last quarter that makes no damn sense to me at all. And Fullmetal Alchemist because children in deserts building life out of dead things, and monsters and doorways.

I should have read this in the nineties. Tanith Lee would have been one of the seminal authors of my childhood, and that would not have been a bad thing. It's too late now, though.
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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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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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The Pinhoe Egg (Chronicles of Chrestomanci Book 6)

3/5. Another Chrestomanci book, this time about an egg hidden in an attic and an old witch clan feud.

Yeah yeah, I'm reading these out of order, whatever.

This is . . . interesting. The weird underpinnings of this world show through more here: part of the point of this book, for one, is Chrestomanci paternalisming all the fuck over everyone, deciding who's been naughty and nice, and handing out "justice" with all the integrity of Dumbledore awarding the house cup to Gryffindor.

DWJ almost knows this. The book is about parenting of many sorts, and family loyalty in a larger sense. It's familial pairs from start to finish: one of our main characters hatches and raises a griffin, the other has complex parental and grandparental relations, etc. And DWJ is almost pushing at the weird edges of the world she created by talking about the power inherent in these relationships, and showing us many occasions where it is abused. And then she just . . . stops.

So it's cute, and there's a whole sequence early on with a rogue magicked table running away down the street that is clearly intended to be rendered in animation. But there isn't the right there here.
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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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October 2015

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