Alan Dean Foster

This was a fun little romp of a book. It starts as a first contact scenario, a nice hectic experience for everyone involved as the various contacted governments scramble to pull together contact teams. And then it promptly goes off the rails for them, as nobody’s expectations about what First Contact will actually look like have anything to do with what happens.1

There’s some fun twists and turns in the book, and I quite enjoyed it. Towards the end it went a little funny, but I think… reasonably stuck the landing. Check it out.2

  1. And I am, frankly, delighted that the book managed to come up with a coherent reason for why this first contact was completely nonsensical in a way that most First Contact stories completely fail at. They’re from space. Do you know how much stuff there is out there? Why would an advanced race bother landing on a planet to mine for resources?
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Doctor Alien”

Rajnar Vajra

I’m really starting to like this ‘small, episodic’ format—it makes it easy to get into things quickly, and also provides clear points at which you can notice that you have once again stayed up too late reading and need to go to bed so you can function tomorrow.

This sorta reminded me of reading, like, an old Sherlock Holmes thing. Or, maybe, Elementary, rather than classic Sherlock Holmes, because of that episodic (and modernized!) vibe. Each one has a nice amount of mystery going on, that feeling that you’re racing the protagonist to figure out what’s really going on. And done in that very satisfying way, too; in the first story, I figured out Patient #1 almost immediately, and felt quite happy when my suspicion was eventually confirmed.1

The introductory material felt a bit overly-congratulatory, but I found myself agreeing with it eventually. Vajra did a really great job of creating interesting aliens—not only is there a very impressive amount of variety in the physical appearances of the aliens, but there’s also some fun cultural differences on display as well. That latter aspect feels like it’s a rich vein for exploring that hasn’t been nearly thoroughly explored enough, but the former, this may be one of the best explorations of this “aliens can be weird” thing I’ve ever seen.2 The aliens are, truly, weird; even with the visual descriptions, there’s a couple that my brain just gave up on trying to visualize, and I wound up as that parable about blind men arguing about what an elephant is.

The third story did a great job of tying things together, and felt like a reasonable close to the series. There’s definitely room for more, if desired, but in these three pieces we’ve got a complete arc, and I was quite satisfied with the ending. Plus, it just had a great sense of cosmic wonder to it, which is a great note to end on. Hopeful science fiction! This is what I want to read.

Overall, I really enjoyed this; it’s a fairly quick read, and manages to hold onto that ”god bless you, old sci fi, you had such high hopes for us”3 kind of vibe while also, like, knowing that cell phones exist. Striking a great balance. Give it a read.4

  1. Spoiler:“She’s a baby!” I muttered to myself, over and over, as I read that one.
  2. The other contender I can think of is Robert L. Forward’s Rocheworld series — between the flouwen and the icerugs, he’s got some really interesting alien lifeforms as well.
  3. Screenshot of a tumblr post by user “ghost drama” that reads “i love old science fiction because it’s all like “IT’S THE DISTANT YEAR TWO THOUSAND AND THREE AND MAN IS EXPLORING THE DEEP CORNERS OF THE UNIVERSE” like god bless you old sci-fi you had such high hopes for us"
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Ocean of Storms”

Christopher Mari, Jeremy K. Brown

Picked at random out of my library of science fiction ebooks, and came up with a good one! The general vibe I have of this book is that, while it could use one more pass from a good editor, it’s got solid bones; the plot tracks fairly well, and feels engaging all the way through, and I was delighted to find that I couldn’t predict the ending ahead of time.

My notes to the authors, should they ever read them:

  • There’s a little of “as you know, Bob” at times—the explanation of the difference between a fission and fusion reactor felt a bit silly, given that it was happening on the moon. By the time you’re there, you’ve probably picked up enough background knowledge about science in general to get the concept.
  • Not every story needs a romance arc!1 The first time around I actually, for the benefit of nobody but myself, pantomimed gagging. It felt forced, and also highlighted how thoroughly male-dominated the cast is.2
  • The pacing feels a bit odd towards the end—about 50 pages from the end, I started wondering if this was going to end on a cliffhanger to set up the next book.3

Editing notes aside, however, I really enjoyed it! I should come up with some kind of pseudo-award to give out to books that successfully trick me into staying up late reading; this would be a winner. And really, what higher praise can I give? Give it a read.4

  1. Well, if you’re writing a romance novel, maybe it does — although, come to think of it, a romance novel without a love story does sound like a pretty interesting exploration of genre.
  2. The president being a woman is a nice touch, but a) I can’t recall her actually having a name other than “the President”, and b) I don’t think she ever talks to another woman, so, there goes the Bechdel test.
  3. Spoiler: It didn’t, the book actually tied things together reasonably well; while it feels like there’s still room for more, it’s less “second movie” and more “spin-off TV series” territory.
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 31”

(Various authors)

I’m not a big fan of the whole ‘death of the author’ thing, and this book really drove home just why I feel that way. It’s a great example of it, really. It’s a collection of stories written by different authors, so surely we can view it separately from the name on the cover, right?

But to set aside the name on the cover, you have to set aside a great deal of context. The people choosing which stories made it into this collection… work for the L. Ron Hubbard foundation. They chose to work there. They looked at that name, and the legacy of it, and thought “yes, I want to be associated with this.” And, a step beyond that, everyone who submitted a story to this contest did so having, again, looked at the name L. Ron Hubbard and thought “yeah, I’m fine with being associated with that.”

That’s a lot of context to throw away, is it not? And it provides a certain amount of explanation for why some of these stories were the way they were. There’s one in here that reminded me of what I don’t like about Orson Scott Card—it treats the female protagonist as if her only purpose for existence is to make babies. Given that the setting feels like it started from the inspiration “what if Handmaiden’s Tale, but in space?” it takes some gall to have the story end with “anyways then she found the right man and they had kids and then happily ever after!”

When it comes to science fiction, I’d rather read hopeful things. This anthology did not deliver on that; I think the most hopeful story in there was one that’s a man in a mental institution, starting to recover from the fact that his sister responded to their parents dying by trying to murder him for the inheritance. Cheery!

Unlike most of my reviews, I’m not gonna end this with a call to action. This wasn’t a good book. Don’t pick it up—Hubbard’s legacy doesn’t deserve that kind of support. Go look for an anthology of queer fiction instead, those are usually better.


“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”

Becky Chambers

The first chapter sorta set me on the wrong mindset for this book; I think, actually, that’s why I bounced off it the first time I tried reading it. It feels like it’s going to be a lot grittier than the book turned out to be. Someone with Secrets, having just done Crimes to escape their Mysterious Past? That’s a very specific vibe, one that, quite frankly, feels rather generic at this point.

That isn’t what this book is.

This book is a study in characters. It’s an exploration of cultural differences on all sorts of different scales, from the ancestral privilege enjoyed by the Martian subset of humanity to the interspecies differences in what the concept of love means.

It’s about found family, and biological family, and how the former can help replace the latter, or heal the wounds imposed by them.

It’s a collection of vignettes, a journey—no, an odyssey—of over a year, the moments of excitement along the titular long way to what does turn out to be a small and angry planet.

Overall, it’s an absolutely beautiful read. I devoured it in an afternoon, and finished reading it watching the sun set and the stars come out, and that’s maybe the perfect way to have done so. It fit the flow of the story. So much of the science fiction I read is about action sequences and big things happening. ‘Ordinary people reacting to extraordinary circumstances.’ This felt like it was starting to fall into the other side of that quote—‘extraordinary people reacting to ordinary circumstances.’ For all that the setting is so very, very much built around the fact that it’s in space, in the future, that isn’t important. What’s important is the people you’re traveling with, and the way you feel about one another.

I loved this book, and I highly recommend it. Go give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Spinward Fringe Broadcast 0: Origins”

Randolph Lalonde

The problem with a book being Book 0 is that you know it’s all setting you up for something. It’s a prologue! Prologues don’t tend to end on “and then everything was great and there was no major conflict left, they all lived happily ever after.”

Which was pretty rough, because I absolutely loved this book and the characters. This feels like the love-child of my favorite parts of Star Trek and FTL. From the former, you’ve got a cast who are all very smart people that are passionate about what they’re doing; that sense of exploration, of a great big galaxy in which there’s trillions of people living their lives, and this group in particular is doing their best to make it a better place for all of them. And from the latter, that feeling of building up, starting with a Default Starship and then customizing it into a lean, mean, fighting machine.1 And, as the plot goes on, the feeling that even after all the upgrades you’ve put into it, there’s still always a bigger bad out there — you remain the scrappy underdog, punching above their weight class, trying to fight the evil hypercorporation.

This is a really fun universe to play around in, is the thought I kept having. I want to see more of it, I want to see where else the characters go to explore. It’s book 0, and I think right now there’s something like 9 more, and I’m hooked; at some point, once I finish reading through my whole gigantic backlog, I’m gonna have to pick up at least Book 1 and see how it is.2

All in all, I loved this book; my biggest complaint is that it was setting me up for the rest of the series, and if the series turns out to be this good, that’s a pretty nice problem to have. Give it a go.3

  1. The fact that the hull is made of “ergranian steel,” which has the never-really-explained property of being able to regenerate when charged with energy from the reactor, adds to that videogame-y feeling – you can heal up in between fights! All it takes is energy, which you have a limitless free supply of courtesy of “the reactors” and some big collecting scoops on the front of the ship that gather space dust.
  2. The transition from Prologue to Main Story feels like it’s gonna be something on the other side, and that’s about all I’m gonna say to avoid spoilers.
  3. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Atomic Robo”

Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, Lee Black, Ronda Pattison, Nick Filardi, Anthony Clark, Jeff Powell

Atomic Robo is one of my favorite comics, one I’ve been reading long enough that I wish I had some way of figuring out exactly how long I have been reading it. It’s getting a review now, however, as I recently did an all-the-way-through reread.1

Here’s the concept of the comic: Nikolai Tesla built a nuclear-powered, fully sentient robot. He’s creatively named Atomic Robo Tesla, and generally goes by Atomic Robo, or just Robo to his friends. Being a bulletproof, super-strong robot, he gets into some adventures! Being an ageless machine, those adventures occur across a wide range of time. Being a world where it’s possible for Nikolai Tesla to build a nuclear-powered, fully sentient robot, those adventures involve a whole lot of pulp science fiction—there’s an entire comic early on where Robo spends a few hours fighting giant insects while having a discussion via radio about why giant insects are impossible.

Basically, it’s some of the most fun science fiction I read, and I absolutely love it. There’s some really interesting storylines, and there’s also some really funny storylines. Just about everything that Dr. Dinosaur shows up in absolutely hilarious—everything else in this world feels like it’s following some rules, though different ones than our world, but Dr. Dinosaur is just running around inside his own personal reality distortion field. And he shows up precisely often enough to maintain the hilarity of how well he plays off of Robo.

So, hey, if you’re at all interested in any of this, go read the comic. The nice thing about webcomics is that it’s all free online! And, honestly, I really recommend starting from the beginning—it makes the most sense that way, and while there’s some early references to stuff that shows up again later, it’s more little hints that make it better on reread.2

  1. Well, in April; these reviews aren’t exactly timely. (Which I usually avoid admitting to, but in this case, the specific things going on in the comic at the time were what set me off rereading from the beginning, I wanted to remember what was being called back to.
  2. Seriously, I had a moment on this most recent reread where I realized that something really early on had been foreshadowing of a storyline that happened, in publishing time of the comic, something like a decade later. Their ‘about’ page says “Everything that happens will fit into the larger setting; everything that happens will happen for a reason” and they mean it.

“Tales from the Loop”

Simon Stålenhag

Two coffee-table-book reviews in a row!

This was a fascinating read; I wasn’t really sure what to expect going in, and it turned out to be a really lovely work of science fiction. In short, this is a coffee table book from a different timeline, one where WWII research invented some kind of magnetic chicanery that lets battleships fly. It’s all centered around a small town in Sweden, something of a company town for the largest particle accelerator ever built.

And I really love that concept. It’s not a science fiction novel, it’s not particularly interested in telling the big story. It’s a coffee table book, an art series by someone who grew up in a place, telling their own story and explaining their paintings. It just happens that the place they grew up was at the center of a lot of weird stuff.

Stålenenhag’s art style works really well for this; something about it feels like concept art that comes out of film and video game studios. That air of mystery, of cinematic effect, and the fact that it’s not a fully fleshed-out story about every last aspect of these things makes it so much more interesting. There’s a lot more room for you to come up with your own explanations.

I almost wish the cover was subtler; it’d be fun to make a version of this that’d blend in, and watch people flip through it and slowly realize “hang on…”

This is a fun read, full of beautiful paintings. Check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Crimson Son”

Russ Linton

This was an interesting midpoint between “superhero novel about the superhero” and “superhero novel about someone completely unrelated to the superheroes.” (The latter is, honestly, pretty rare, and I think there’s more room for it to be explored as a concept. Agents of SHIELD is also somewhat on this line.) Spencer, the protagonist, certainly isn’t a superhero, being entirely powerless, but he’s also not not involved. His dad is the Superman archetype, and Spencer, being the obvious weak point, is… trapped in a secret bunker somewhere in the Arctic Circle.

The backstory of that bunker made me very happy, though—it’s not just “random bunker because Cold War,” it’s specifically explained later in the book that it was part of a network of those bunkers built by the Soviet Union… because in this world, as best as I can tell, the entire realm of “nuclear” just never happened. World War II ended with a strike team of superhumans; Chernobyl was a superhuman run amuck; the Cold War weapons race was both sides developing more and more superhumans.

Which is just a delightful twist. “They invented superheroes during World War II, but nothing else changed”? Tired. “They invented superheroes during World War II, and now all sorts of major historical events went differently because The Ultimate Weapon is now a superhero instead of a nuke”? Wired.1

And, really, the book just builds on that. The title works really well—the whole book, really, is about the legacy of that Cold War weapons development. Not just that there’s other supers out there, but that the governments had some programs officially trying to wind down the whole arms race… and that they weren’t entirely honest about how it all went.

It’s a really interesting take on the genre that I’ve read a whole lot of, and I quite enjoyed it. Definitely worth a read.2

  1. I think my favorite one of these was that, in this universe, there were no planes on 9/11; instead, there was a superhuman fielded by a terrorist organization, created using leaked Cold War superhuman tech.
  2. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.

“The Stories” [2/2]

A continuation of my previous post, where I started but didn’t finish reviewing a massive, 5,000-page anthology of short stories collected by the science fiction publisher Tor. There’s a longer explanation in that previous one; here, I’m finishing my list of stories that caught my interest, with links to where you can read them (free!) online.

  • Fire Above, Fire Below by Garth Nix. Garth Nix’s writing always reminds me of his Seventh Tower series, which I absolutely loved as a kid.1 Which has nothing to do with this story, but it’s still what came to mind.
  • Four Horsemen, at Their Leasure by Richard Parks. At this point, I think Terry Pratchett pretty definitively owns the idea of Death as an anthropomorphized entity. And this fits right into that style—theologically very different from the Discworld mythos, and a great deal emptier, but the idea of Death arguing with God? That’s still very Pratchett.
  • Silver Linings by Tim Pratt. This can’t not be an allegory about nuclear proliferation. Given that nuclear proliferation is one of my biggest worries, how could I not enjoy the story?
  • Clockwork Fairies by Cat Rambo. Rambo did a great job of writing this, because the protagonist is, very deliberately, the single most unlikeable person I’ve ever had to share a perspective with. He’s got that same “terrible in an entirely believable way” thing going on that made Umbridge such an iconic villain.
  • The Cairn in Slater Woods by Gina Rosati. I wasn’t actually expecting this story to go the way it did—I was really thinking it was gonna go, like, “the other school in the neighborhood is for the local vampires” or something silly.
  • Loco by Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker. This feels like a weird cross between Girl Genius and Livewires and I’m… kinda here for it?2
  • Firstborn by Brandon Sanderson. There’s a definite Ender’s Game thing going on here, with the whole “managing a war, lots of training simulations, one sibling is preternaturally good at it” aspect. But the way it’s turned and twisted is quite fun.
  • After the Coup by John Scalzi. I’m a frequent reader of the “humanity, fuck yeah!” type of story, and this feels like that genre at its absolute best. It isn’t about how great humanity is, unstoppable war machine or whatever; it’s about what people are really like. It’s comical in the best of ways.
  • The President’s Brain is Missing by John Scalzi. It was at this point that I decided I should probably put Scalzi on my “get some of his full books and read them” list, because this was just as much fun to read as the previous one.
  • Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City: Prologue by John Scalzi. Another entry for the “Terry Pratchett would be proud” category. This feels like a slightly darker take on Guards, Guards!3
  • A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon by Ken Scholes. I’ve just now realized what this makes me think of—the Septimus Heap series. An old-fashioned world, with a bit of real magic… that just so happens to be the things built back when magic was just science.
  • Do Not Touch by Prudence Shen. I really like the idea that paintings have those “Do Not Touch” signs not because it’ll damage the ink, but because the curators are tired of diving into the paintings after the kids there on field trips.
  • Overtime by Charles Stross. After the amount of Doctor Who they’ve all seen, nobody should be surprised that the British continue to produce time-travel paradoxes.
  • Down on the Farm by Charles Stross. That said, I’m actually really enjoying this “Laundry” setting, and may need to go read one of the bigger books. It feels like it’s partially addressing one of my issues with Warehouse 13—namely, that any government organization dealing with Weird Crap like that should have a much bigger bureaucracy.45
  • A Tall Tail by Charles Stross. You could maybe write a story that’s more precisely up my alley, but to do so you’d have to take one of those AI models and train it exclusively on my interests for a few years. This sent me off on multiple searches to find out if historical things mentioned actually existed and I’d just missed them, or they were made up for the story.6
  • The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick. Very much in the style of a northern European folk tale, but with a setting where the magic is a result of having built and then forgotten how to build a whole lot of very big, very powerful technologies.
  • The Mongolian Wizard by Michael Swanwick. The starter of a whole series—which, as I found out when grabbing the link, continued on after what’s in the ebook, so I’ve got some further reading for myself—of a very magical take on something of a World War.
  • What Doctor Gottlieb Saw by Ian Tregillis. Recommended reading prior to this: “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”. Because this is, for sure, a story about what happens when you create a superintelligence without thinking in advance about what and how.
  • The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For A Little While by Catherynne M. Valente. A less young-adult version of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which I’ve mentioned before as one of my favorite series.
  • The Last Son of Tomorrow by Greg van Eekhout. A lot of similarity to the ending of Superman: Red Son, what with the examination of “hang on, what does Superman do when he notices that he’s immune to aging?”
  • A Stroke of Dumb Luck by Shiloh Walker. Another entry in the “vampires and werewolves are just kinda fun” category, with bonus points for a good balance between “actual consequences” and “oh god you’re such a teen about how to deal with this situation.”
  • Super Bass by Kai Ashante Wilson. The moment in the book (here, thousands of pages in, yes) where I realize how overwhelmingly white/european everything else in the book has been. A reminder that I want to get further out of my comfort zone with what I read, because a lot of the stuff out there, like this, is really good. Very, very different from what I’m used to, and I feel like I’m missing a whole lot of cultural context, but I can muddle my way through and still enjoy it.
  • The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree by Michael Swanwick. I’m very slowly working my way through Lessons in Chemistry at the moment, and this very much reminded me of that at the beginning, to the point that I spent the whole story bracing myself for the betrayal that never came. Instead, this was a bittersweet, paradoxical work that I found myself really loving.
  • The Sigma Structure Symphony by Gregory Benford. Between the wonderful description of a Lunar colony developed around archiving SETI transmissions from a busy, busy galaxy and the exploration of music as mathematics (and mathematics as music), there’s no way this wasn’t making it onto my list.
  1. And, honestly, still enjoyed rereading a couple years ago—it’s great fodder for a “this is a work of fantasy, but how can I turn it into far-future science fiction?” thought experiment. Hint: it involves a globe-spanning swarm of nanobots running a virtual world.
  2. > “Not much like Patel,” mused Becka. > “I can’t say,” replied Gordo. “Remember, I only joined your team after the Patel incident.”

    > “I wish you’d stop bitching about ‘the Patel incident.’”

    > “Look,” said Gordo, “you can’t just morph a federal scientist into a giant invertebrate that catches fire. That’s not an acceptable protocol.”

  3. > It is said that earthquakes are what happens when two night dragons love each other very much.
  4. > Call me impetuous (not to mention a little bored) but I’m not stupid. And while I’m far enough down the management ladder that I have to squint to see daylight, I’m an SSO 3, which means I can sign off on petty cash authorizations up to the price of a pencil and get to sit in on interminable meetings, when I’m not tackling supernatural incursions or grappling with the eerie, eldritch horrors in Human Resources.
  5. Although, that said, Warehouse 13 did feature an org chart that consisted of a handful of agents, a manager, the CEO, her personal driver, a contractor of a doctor, and then a board of directors that outnumbered the entire rest of the organization, so maybe they do have a healthy amount of bureaucracy…
  6. I shouldn’t have doubted myself; all the things that I went “wait, is that real? How have I never heard of that?” were, in fact, fictional. Or, I guess, are still classified.

“The Stories” [1/2]

This is a massive read. My e-reader, which paginates things fairly well, counted it out to precisely 5,000 pages—I actually spent some time wondering if it was so perfectly 5,000, or if that’s just a hard-coded limit at which it throws its hands up in the air and says “I dunno, man, it’s a long document.” As it turns out, it’s just a perfectly even 5,000 pages! I’ll have to try harder if I want to stump the pagination algorithm.

As to what the actual content is, Tor (the publisher, not the service you use if you want to avoid government censorship and/or commit some kind of crime) frequently hires writers to write short stories, which they publish on their website. And, at some point, they bundled up five years’ worth of those stories into this gargantuan ebook. It’ll make for an interesting review, because everything contained in the book is also online, so I can link directly to individual stories. (Which is for the best, because I now can’t figure out where I got this ebook or if it’s still for sale.)

So, here goes: the stories that I bookmarked, and some thoughts about each of them.

  • The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo. So perfectly creepy, and not at all in the way you’d expect it to be—an inverted folk tale. The first story in the book where I went “aw, crap” because I was reading before bed and it was about to ruin my ability to sleep. Also the first one that I went and found online to send to someone to read.
  • The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere by John Chu. Heartbreaking and heartfelt, and all the complexity of family and expectations. I absolutely adore the use of a science fiction concept as perfectly normal—it reminds me of a(n apparently misremembered) Steven King quote. “Science fiction is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances; literature is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.”1
  • The Commonplace Book by Jacob Clifton. I liked the familiar-but-not-quite feel of Ada Lovelace and her dealing with the complete nonsense that is societal expectations.2
  • The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday by G.D. Falksen. Wonderfully irreverent, with some of that Sherlock Holmes styling that I enjoy, though wrapped up as an actual police officer instead of entirely an outsider to the system. The setting feels very big though, like, there’s a whole lot of steampunk world to explore… but we’re here, in the big city, safe from all the things that go bump in the night. Well, mostly.
  • A Clean Sweep With All the Trimmings by James Alan Gardner. The writing style took a little bit to get used to, but by the end I was a little bit in love with it.3
  • Shade by Steven Gould. I had to look up the author afterwards, and realized that while I hadn’t read any of his other works, some of what’s going on here feels familiar because it’s set in the same universe as one of those other works… that was adapted into a movie that I’ve seen. And I like things like this, seeing people use their extraordinary circumstances to help ordinary people.
  • Ghost Hedgehog by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Once again, this feels like a connection to an existing work, although I don’t think Hoffman wrote The Sixth Sense.
  • The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles by Kij Johnson. What can I say? I’m a cat person. And this story has that nice “old legend” feel to it—it isn’t polished to within an inch of its life, it has little side journeys along the way.
  • First Flight by Mary Robinette Kowal. Doing a bit of rereading for this review, and I don’t know that I’d realized quite how good a mic drop “he understood the historical context” is at the end.
  • The Speed of Time by Jay Lake. It’s a little disjointed, but I think that actually worked quite well. It reminds me of Fine Structure—something huge and not nearly so complex as it seems, expressed in many different ways.
  • The Starship Mechanic by Jay Lake and Ken Scholes. Something about Penauch stuck with me. An infinite multi-tool of a creature, wanting nothing more than a little vacation, and only able to get it by some fairly ridiculous means.
  • Earth Hour by Ken Macleod. Every other future in the book feels a little bit dated—that general feeling of old science fiction where they assumed we’d be running around on Mars but had no idea that cell phones would exist, though not to nearly that degree—except this one. It still feels very modern in how it imagines the future. I still can’t decide if it’s an optimistic take on the future or not, but I enjoyed it either way.
  • Though Smoke Shall Hide the Sun by Brit Mandelo. Here’s a piece of fiction that feels particularly of a time—vampires and werewolves, oh my! But, hey, that was a big trend for a while for a reason. It’s fun!
  • Heads Will Roll by Lish McBride. This feels like the concept for a YA TV series. I’d watch the heck out of it, honestly. Percy Jackson vibes, too.

And here, I’m splitting the post, because a 5,000-page book deserves more than one post worth of review. (And, frankly, I feel like I should get more than one week’s worth of blog post out of that much reading!)

  1. After a great deal of googling, I managed to find the actual quote, which is similar but not quite what I was thinking:> Pop culture writing is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Literature is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
  2. I also pulled out a great quote:> “At the end of things, which comes closer every minute, you will look back and you will see the path of your life. Do you want that girl to be a cringing swot, a spinster who loved and lost; or do you want to be strong enough to design your life to your own specifications? I assure you, I shall hate you either way. But you shouldn’t hate yourself.
  3. > Carl says a delivery came for me and it is waiting behind the candy counter. When I look, I see two wooden crates. One is stuffed with feather pillows and one is not. The one without pillows holds twenty sticks of dynamite. The other holds four bottles of nitro, which are put to bed on nice soft pillows because nitro gets sore if someone wakes it accidentally.

“The Last Dance”

Martin L. Shoemaker

This book completely surprised me; as with a great deal of the reading I’ve been doing lately, I went in with absolutely no expectations, no memory of what the book was about or where and when I’d bought it. And so it was a wonderful surprise to be totally enraptured; I read the book in one day. (And overslept the next morning, because I stayed up late to finish reading it, but happily, I’m on vacation as of this writing, so it’s not an issue!)

The book takes place on an Aldrin cycler, a ship taking advantage of orbital mechanics to shuttle between Earth and Mars at a fuel cost of nearly zero.1 That gives some really interesting context for the plot—“orbital mechanics waits for no man.” So, rather than someone senior handling this big deal investigation, it’s whoever was close enough to catch the ship before the orbit took it back out of reach. And thus, we get an idealistic young investigator wielding the full power of the Inspector General’s office, rather than the admiral at the head of the office. And, courtesy of light-speed delay, said admiral can’t run the show via telepresence, they’re stuck back on Earth, trusting the investigator to do their job. In a way, it reminds me of Ascension, but handled better: you’ve got a ship, cut off from the world by distance. A closed system. And a whole lot of political complexity contained within it, some big inciting incident that happened before we joined the story.

So, with that framework set up, it’s time for the actual story. I found the storytelling absolutely sublime—the protagonist is that idealistic young investigator, trying to see justice done. But, up until the end, we don’t actually get told what happened, it’s just The Incident, and we’re seeing the aftermath. Tempers have cooled somewhat, but everyone is still on edge. The admiralty is one side, with the captain as the other—but the crew is absolutely loyal to the captain. And we’re following the investigator as they’re trying to do their fact-finding, trying to arrive at an unbiased conclusion.

In pursuit of this, we get bits and pieces of their story. And the main thing their story consists of is getting other people’s stories—short interstitial chapters with them, and then longer pieces where some member of the crew tells a story of when the captain earned their trust and loyalty.

It’s a fascinating character study. We barely interact with the captain directly, but the whole thing is about the captain; it’s all about his relationships with the rest of the crew, and the ship, and the admiralty. And, the space industry being the size it is, the relationships of these various characters with each other; there’s no infinite supply of new faces and names, it’s the same characters, seeing one another, and showing us different angles on each of them. With that in mind, I suspect it’d be just as fun to reread, even already knowing what the big mystery is, and the conclusion it’s all leading to.

I absolutely adored this book, and cannot recommend it highly enough. Check it out.2

  1. My understanding is that this is an entirely feasible concept, which genuinely was proposed by Buzz Aldrin. In point of fact, this book seems to fall within the realm of ‘hard science fiction’ — everything is genuinely physically possible.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Scarlet Odyssey”

C T Rwizi

Pretty much any piece of fantasy I read that has magic in it, I wind up trying to figure out the rules of the magic. Because, sure, it’s magic, but it has to have a system underlying it—otherwise nobody would be able to actually use it for stuff! A lot of the time, for the sake of the story, the rules basically boil down to “magic does whatever the plot needs it to do,” which admittedly isn’t not the case in “Scarlet Odyssey,” but there’s also very clearly a set of rules for how it works.1

But what I really loved about this set of rules, what really captivated me, is that it isn’t magic. It’s a sufficiently advanced technology. And it’s masterfully done. Ra featured a magic system that just is programming, including very clear connections to how *nix works. “Scarlet Odyssey” has hints of how it works that make it feel distantly related—more of the “this is how the abstract concept of computation works” than “this is how most computers on Earth work.” That makes it a lot easier to buy this as not a completely alternate-world history, but actually a far, far distant-future bit of science fiction. (Personally, my theory is that the reason they all worship the moon and regard it as the source of the magic is that it is—a moon is a handy place to put some machinery a couple ticks up the Kardeshev scale that you’re gonna use to customize the laws of physics for a planet.)

So, a couple hundred words in to this review, I’m clearly enamored of the world building. And, wow, I’ve barely scratched the surface; there’s a whole rich history, multiple civilizations, the actual details of how the system of magic works… it feels big and storied. Historic.

Worldbuilding aside, I also really enjoyed the story.2 Salo makes for an interesting protagonist, and the jumping between different characters’ perspectives is well-done, providing their different views of how the journey is going, as well as their own stories. Frankly, by the end of the book, it feels a bit like a D&D campaign group—each of the characters is totally unique, and a fight between them and a big group of Generic Evil Minions Plus One Big Bad feels like it fell right out of the Dungeon Master’s Guidebook. They’ve each got their own story, and while Salo is clearly the main protagonist, the story they’re writing together isn’t just about him.

We’ve also got a really great villain in The Handmaid, though I’ll admit I did spend a bit of time being very confused because I hadn’t realized that The Handmaid and The Enchantress were two different characters. Pay attention to the chapter titles, kids, they’re meaningful!

Overall, I absolutely loved this book. I feel as if, here at the end, I should be doing some kind of caveat, but it really directly hit everything I want from a book! It’s not even failing the Russo Test!3 I recommend the heck out of “Scarlet Odyssey,” give it a read.4

  1. Said rules aren’t particularly clear, as there’s at least six kinds of magic, but also maybe a seventh, and also that’s only the ones practiced on this continent, and there’s a whole other family of magic in the other continents? There’s a lot going on.
  2. I could’ve done with more than around 1/2 of a plot thread being tied up by the end of the book, but they’ve gotta get me hooked for the remainder of the trilogy somehow. And, to be fair, if things had been cut down enough to fit the whole trilogy’s plot into one book, it would’ve either been a terrifyingly large book, or lost a lot of the detail that I enjoyed.
  3. In point of fact, it passes it with flying colors. Identifiably gay characters? Salo’s subtle, but his uncle and uncle’s husband, less so. Not defined by that character trait? The uncle is a fierce warrior, and Salo’s own queerness is honestly easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention to how he interacts with the guy he’s trying to hide his crush on/from. Integral to the story? Yeah, I’d say the main character is pretty integral to the story!
  4. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“The Last Cities of Earth”

ed. Jennifer Brozek

This was an absolutely fascinating anthology. Generally when I read those, they’re gathered around a single subject area or theme; in this case, though, they all took place in a shared universe.1 In a way, it reminds me of the concept of transformative works—a bunch of different people playing together in the same space, each putting their own twist on it.

And hey, if parts of the concept struck me as a bit ridiculous, it’s not like I’m always sticking to the most robust hard-science-fiction in my reading. Floating cities struck everyone as the best way to survive a global climate apocalypse? Y’know what, sure, why not. It’ll look cool.

Now, thoughts on a couple of the stories:

  • Warriors of the Rainbow was a great choice for ending the book, and totally hits the solarpunk-hopeful vibe that I really like. Sure, there’s realpolitik and a Big Bad, but there’s people working simply on making things better. The kind of thing the world needs!
  • The Flying Dutchman was my personal low point for the book. I just hate zombies. Sure, they followed the protocol to keep it from getting from the airship into the city, but… they found the zombie disease(?) on the ground somewhere. It’s a rather key point of how zombies work that they’re quite content to walk a long ways. That problem isn’t dealt with, and nobody knows what’s coming. Uh oh.
  • Fatherhood was an excellent introduction, and while it has that “that problem isn’t dealt with, and nobody knows what’s coming” vibe to it as well, it’s at least a less-apocalyptic problem. Slightly.
  • Bonsai was, I think, my favorite of the stories. It feels Pratchettian to me; certainly that amount of silliness. And, again, it’s hopeful! Sure, hopeful through a really tangled mess of espionage and high-tech weaponry, but that just makes it better.

So, all told, I really enjoyed this book. Powered through the whole thing in, like, a day; it was a struggle to put it down to get to sleep.2 So hey, go give it a read.3

  1. Well, within limits—clearly there wasn’t a single centralized authority making sure that everything perfectly respected everyone else’s additions to the canon, just look at the variety of names that Las Vegas gets.
  2. Did I wind up stopping after The Flying Dutchman? Yes. Should I have continued after that? Also yes, because c’mon, Grey, load something other than nightmares into your short-term memory before trying to sleep.
  3. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.

“Owl Be Home for Christmas”

Diane Duane

This is a pretty direct follow-on to my last review, and similarly was written before Christmas. And while it’s the same kind of thing—a small, not saving-the-world scale story in a universe I love—it’s also very different. Because “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” takes place within the main timeline of the books, but this was based on a real event, and was thus locked to a specific point in time. Which happened to be something like a decade later than the rest of the series.

It’s a commentary on how well Duane has written the series to be timeless that it’s easy to forget that, prior to the New Millennium rewrite, these were all taking place in, what, the 80s-90s? That timelessness, though, made it very surprising to realize that, in jumping up to approximately now, a lot of time had passed.

And that’s what really hit me, in reading this. It’s a glimpse at the future of these characters I love. I’ve gone from being along for the ride as they grow up to seeing them as adults, and the places they’ve made for themselves. It’s a bittersweet reunion, and it makes me want to know everything that happened in between. Kit did a doctorate? In what? Nita’s working with Irina? How did that happen? What else have I missed?

All that, and there’s also the sense that the series has grown. I remember that 90s-inflected, Don’t Say Gay treatment of Tom and Carl in the original edition of the first book. In point of fact, I remember explicit statements that they weren’t together, just coworkers who’d decided to buy a house together.

And now, here in 2020, we get to see them waking up together. Poking fun, “are you calling me old?” “I seem to remember telling you I like older men…”

This was such a short story, and it pulled on my heartstrings way more than I was expecting it to. I think this one may be slightly better for someone new to the series than the last, given that there’s less need to actually know who the characters are to understand what’s going on—although it actually has direct references to “How Lovely Are Thy Branches”—but the broader context of how this world works would still be confusing. So hey, why not pick up the box set, it’s a pretty good deal.