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Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) (2015): Moving on from Lifeboats to another sort of ship. Excuse me, did the trilogy just stick the landing? Extensive spoilers for all three novels. )

Also, Leckie's tumblr is a delight. See especially #peep-peep-peep-peep.
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So, er, I found some book logs I started in July, and put somewhere unusual for me, and just found this week. And I remembered I had finished Lifeboats, so here's some novels.

Ancillary Mercy is getting its own post. It's moved me that much.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami) (1997 trans. Jay Rubin): Absolutely surreal Japanese fiction about a milk-mild fellow, Toru Okada, and a dry well. Also mysticism, Japan's collapse on the Manchuran front during WW2, fate and free will, and Noboru Wataya, an academic, rising politician, and also the brother of Kumiko, Toru's wife.

It's a floating novel, as Okada wanders through life with very little idea what he wants, or what he stands to lose, until he loses the thing that defined his life. The narrative is fragmentary, filled with negative space during Okada's periods of unemployment and isolation, and with elliptical loose connections between the characters who erratically interact with Okada: May Kashiwara, a teenaged girl who lives in Okada's neighborhood; Malta Kano, a clairvoyant, and her sister Creta Kano; Lieutenant Mamiya; Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka, mother and son in a clairvoyant family business; Mr. Hondo, another clairvoyant. It's a little tricky to judge prose and style across translation, but what has survived the translation is something extremely controlled and literary, with a control of language that gives the reader the sense Murakami knows exactly what he's doing. It took me a really long time to get into the novel, but at the end I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start rereading in light of knowledge revealed by the end of the novel.

"Penric's Demon" (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2015): A novella in the Five Gods universe, about an accident with a demon and a Very Nice Young Man. It's a nice Bujold novella, that doesn't break any new ground if you're familiar LMB's fiction, but average Bujold is still very solid entertainment.

Lifeboats (Diane Duane) (2015): Joins "Not On My Patch" and "How Lovely Are Thy Branches" as the third minor "interstitial" story between A Wizard of Mars and Games Wizards Play. At 90,000 words, it's not terribly minor. And thematically, it doesn't feel minor: Kit, Nita, and most of the usual suspects are called up on an emergency mission of mercy. As a story about when flashy displays of wizardly power aren't the solution, I really liked it. The teenage angst about Valentine's Day was cute, in a sappy "aw, teenagers" way. It's a lot of fun watching Nita and Kit grow up; I'm enjoying how Duane is developing their characters and relationship.
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I just finished Ancillary Mercy.

Now that was an ending. And Seivarden! I was not expecting Seivarden of all people to be promoted in my affections. Unlike [spoiler] who is awful and steals the show with awesome one liners from pretty much the first second onstage. And [epic spoiler]! Enjoy the salad. With fish sauce.
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Two nominees got punted on Did Not Finish grounds, but the other three - Addison's The Goblin Emperor, Leckie's Ancillary Sword, and Liu's The Three-Body Problem - have had me dithering.

3BP is good but flawed. If I can tell the physics is silly and inaccurate, the physics is really silly. AS is very much a middle novel; it's a competent middle novel, but my evaluation of its quality will be greatly influenced by Ancillary Mercy, out this October. And TGE is operating in such a different register from the other two novels, to the point where I ask whether you could strip out the genre aspects and have the exact same story.

In a good year, the Hugos are an embarrassment of riches, a diverse slate of competing innovative well-written ideas. I'm pleased these three novels give me a taste of that. I say with all my heart there is merit in stories where writers are figuring out their craft, or roughing out new things, or getting the bills paid in a competent but not brilliant fashion. But there's a difference between a story that demonstrates promise or developing talent and a story that merits Hugo recognition. That's why there's a lot of No Award going around this year.

My novel rankings right now are:
1 The Three-Body Problem
2 The Goblin Emperor
3 Ancillary Sword
4 No Award

But yesterday I had AS up top, and I still have a day to change my mind.

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie: already read, and reread it too. In case you were wondering whether I liked it, ah, yes, I did.

The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson: There are so many problems, and I'm only 100 pages in. You know what? I'm 100 pages in, there have been 13 PoV characters in 16 chapters, it's exactly like reading Exile's Song only I'm not 14. The terrible prose, the illusion of depth that would likely be shattered by reading the rest of the series, the failures at basic mechanics of storytelling, the gratuitous Indiana Jones bad archaeology... I can stop now! There's been enough exposure that I know how I plan to rank this when I cast my ballot!

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison / Sarah Monette: already read it. And I reread it while considering rankings. It's sweet and cute and at the end of it I asked, "does this have to be genre?" The story of TGE works equally well as a Ruritanian epic: substitute trains for airships and the goblins for a European power, and you've got something not entirely unlike, say, Philip Pullman's The Tin Princess.

Cut for space. )

Skin Game, Jim Butcher: The prose is slick, though the protagonist is ridiculous. The story opens with Harry Dresden hanging out on an island with certain eldritch properties, mostly playing parkour and waiting to... die from a magical brain tumor... or... something. Clearly I am coming into the middle of this series!

I only read the sample chapters of Skin Game, which were enough to convince me of Butcher's qualities as a writer without generating sufficient interest for me to check the full novel from the library. Beach reading; competent but not award winning.

(Parkour in the eldritch catacombs. Oh, Harry.)

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu; Ken Liu translator: Now this is unquestionably science fiction. Spoilers. )

This is so very rooted in genre conventions. The aliens are hostile; the most critical science is cutting edge physics; a classic physics problem is a key aspect of the backstory. I'm fascinated that the author's note included with the English translation tells us that Chinese science fiction usually writes aliens as benevolent, since that's not my experience of the American approach to life in the skies.

I'm also surprised 3BP didn't show up on the Puppy slates, being the sort of gosh-wow SF they claim to support, but then I found Cixin Liu's Big Idea on Scalzi's blog, and for those of you who have been blissfully ignorant, the people behind the puppy slates are not rational on the topic of John Scalzi and anyone associated with him. Also, dare I suggest that a group that has consistently behaved as through straight white men of a certain socioecomic classes are the only group that counts might have, ah, not welcomed the contributions of a non-white non-American? Maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems like such an oversight not to include 3BP, when writers like KJA, Marko Kloos, and Larry Correira made it on the puppy slate in the novel category.
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The novelettes were a step up from the short story and novella categories, but still not exactly brilliant material. I'm on the fence about voting any of them over No Award.

"Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium", Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014): Old man dies on planet colonized by humans, then recolonized by aliens, and uses his death to rebel against the aliens' death rituals, in the first step to triggering a conflict between the two colonizing groups.

After the previous categories, this... isn't bad. It's got a beginning, middle, and end; it's not brilliant but it tells the story it set out to tell. It's not masterful. It's not introducing new ideas to the field, or demonstrating award-worthy levels of skill with prose, worldbuilding, or plotting. It's not that insightful about the material it's retreading. What's the difference between humans rebelling against their alien oppressors, and Iraqis in conflict with Americans? The lack of nuance is enough of a failure for me to knock this way down the rankings.

"Championship B'tok", Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014): Part two of a series about interstellar civilizations knit together by a lightspeed transmission network of... intellectual property? The story treats this as a background element to the unmasking of a conspiracy spanning millennia, but I kept getting hung up on the radiowave IP thing. It's like the backstory for Cherryh's Company novels smashed into Vinge's Qeng Ho, except without the things either of them do well. Both Cherryh and Vinge call out the lightspeed lags and the surprises that pile up between transmissions and reactions to transmissions, and how that plays out. "Championship B'Tok" foregrounds an in-system plot, which cuts down on your lightspeed lags, but treats the interstellar plot as the big reveal. It's a very distracting flaw in the story, which has sidetracked me from the dicey prose and flat characterization. If the plot and worldbuilding were better, I'd be able to overlook the prose and characterization, but that's not the case. Ambitious but flawed.

"The Day the World Turned Upside Down", Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014): the next time someone is asking what nice guy syndrome looks like, look no further! Girlfriend ditches boy, magical realism happens, Young Flower Of Untouched Innocence appears, Symbol of Our Relationship suffers at ex-boyfriend's hands, ex-BF quits this plane of existence in a way that is supposed to show how over everything he is. You can tell because he's mentally telling his ex how so very over her he is in the last paragraphs of the story.

The "romantic breakup = world turned upside down, NO LITERALLY" is actually executed well. If I were doing magical realism, I'd want to have cool ideas like that.

However, the execution relies on me caring about a Nice Guy who pines until he is totally, really over her when he discovers - gasp - there is another man in her life! She contaminated her purity by seeing another man after she dumped him!

Spare me.

It's hard to tell if this is suffering in translation from the subtle difference between the characters being jerks, and the author being completely aware of the intended effect, and the protagonist being a waste of my time because that is the author worldview. Negative one million points for Nice Guy protagonist souring my week.

n.b. this was a non-slate nomination. In the immortal word of Carolyn Hax, wow.

"The Journeyman: In the Stone House", Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014): This... isn't awful. It feels like a chunk hewn out of a larger story, but it has an acceptable beginning, middle, and end; mangles English in service of the story; and assembles the worldbuilding and characterization in a way that puts this that smidge over "Flow" where I cared enough to finish the story without skimming. The plot is, again, Ringworld natives; but it's competent Ringworld natives.

"The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale", Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014): Space cadets - Exoplanetary Explorers in training - pick a fight in a bar, get detailed to punishment duty packing up a failed project, and save the project from failing by noticing things overlooked by all other personnel assigned to the project in the last 30 years.

Wiki tells me the golden age of SF is 1938 - 1946, with some scholars advocating the '50s as the true Golden Age. My assessment is that the Golden Age of SF is twelve, when you're old enough to read adult works widely and indiscriminately, before you suss out the qualitative differences between Piers Anthony and Lois Bujold. But going by the golden age as a historic time period, the subtitle is spot on. This is from the "golden age", with the stiff prose, cocksure protagonists, and lack of grounding in actual human psychology you'd expect from that era. I started reading, I started skipping, I started flipping ahead to the end. It might not be bad, but if there's a brilliant idea lurking in there it's hobbled by the deadly words "I don't care about any of these characters, or the thing they're exploring" that escaped my thoughts a fifth of the way through.
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Since I suspected the novella category would be the hardest to read, I decided to tackle the novellas after the short stories. I'm ranking "No Award" as my first choice for this category. I finished only one of the nominees, hurled another aside with great force, and declined to spend time on the other two novellas the writer had gotten on the ballot in the novella category.

"Flow", Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, 11-2014): A competent adventure of a young man in a place that might or might not be a future Earth. Rist travels to the "warmlands" from his cold northern home with a group of "icemen" who guide and sell the icebergs that calve off his homeland's glaciers. The prose is stiff, and prone to infodumping, in the tradition of the Future as Travelogue; in fact, the juxtaposition of infodump and remnant technology reminded me a bit of Niven's Ringworld, as did Rist's adventurous personality. That's the strength and the weakness of this story: it could have been written any time in the last fifty years without changing a beat. The treatment of women only as "birthers" and sexy things to have sex with is a step down from Ringworld and other stories of the '60s and '70s, when science fiction was rediscovering that women are people too. Teela Brown at least gets her own scrap of story in Ringworld; in "Flow", Rith's mother is the only named female character, even though one might think the prostitute he screws - twice - might be another way our adventurous young lad could talk to and learn about the new horizons opening to him. In a stronger year, I'd have equally competent and more innovative choices to rank above this; for the 2015 awards, this is the only novella I actually read most of the way through. I started skimming at the two-thirds mark, but I finished it.

Big Boys Don't Cry, Tom Kratman (Castalia House): Super-sized tank with some level of AI is in her final battle and is scrapped for salvage by her human creators. ("Her" is correct; the the tank is definitely gendered by the narrative.)

I was recently pitching a story idea to a third party, with interleaved flashbacks as part of the structure. She gently and firmly nixed the structure.

This is an example of why she said to toss the flashback stricture. Stories benefit from chronological order. If the story will be told out of order, it better be for a really good reason. Thematic clustering, where theme is overpowering every other element of the storytelling. It's bouncing between linked stories set during World War Two and the '90s and have more than 300,000 words to play with (hi, Cryptonomicon). It's tracking River Song and the Doctor's hop-scotching personal timelines. There is a very specific information game it's playing (hi, Ancillary Justice). Whatever reason is in play, it helps to have strong technical skills when approaching the story's tone, prose, themes, and characterization that will help make or break the structural choice. The technical skills on display in this story aren't up to the challenge.

Big Boys Don't Cry opens in a "now" frame, told from a super-sized tank's PoV. Then it breaks for a didactic history lesson that reminded me of nothing so much as the opening of Cyteen, only with more riots and hanging. Then it jumps back to the tank and a salvage team. And then there's a bunch of character and temporal shifts into the tank's past, the salvage team doing its job in the now, and the tank in the now, with occasional outbreaks of Didactic Textbook Voice, aka infodumps. Made it to chapter 4 of 10, where the dying hulk flashes back to her first combat mission, and noped out.

One Bright Star to Guide Them, John C. Wright (Castalia House): Not read.

"Pale Realms of Shade", John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House): Not read.

"The Plural of Helen of Troy", John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House): I started reading this before I read Wright's nonfiction, hit multiple "nope" items in quick succession and skipped to the end. Structurally this attempts to disguise Wright's extensive technical weaknesses by telling the story in reverse chronological order. Because it's a time travel story, get it?

Wright does not have the technical chops to pull this off. I did not lightly toss aside "The Plural of Helen of Troy", I deleted it off my ereader with great force.
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For the Related Works category of the Hugo packet we have "John C. Wright's Patented One-Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction", an essay from Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth. I want to burn it and take a shower.

I cannot believe I am putting this behind a cut for sexual content in an essay on basic fiction skills. And yet, here is a cut with a warning about surprise gross objectification of women in an essay on basic fiction skills. There's bonus slurs on non-Western beliefs. )

When an artist has mastered his or her craft and does amazing things with it, it's possible to have engaging debates about the merit of art versus the artist's personal failings. Sometimes there are good people who are not great at their chosen craft, but we'd like them to find success to reflect the quality of their character, even if their work isn't to one's taste. My exposure to Wright's fiction and nonfiction work fulfills neither of those categories. In fact, I'd characterize his fiction as amateur work unworthy of the Hugos, and the nonfiction I have read as actively harmful to building a vibrant community of high quality writers capable of engaging with the questions of speculative fiction, be those extrapolation of contemporary hard science, examining the human condition, exploration of space and the future of humanity, or... take your pick. Wright's advice on writing is lacking as his fiction is lacking.

In light of what I interpret as bad writing and a general vibe of "off", I won't be reading anything else be Wright for this year's Hugos and will be leaving his work off the ballot.
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Recognizing that people have different interpretations and relationships with fiction, and also that shorter fiction just doesn't hit my buttons the way a fat novel will, I usually try not to just say, "wow, I hated this story." However, I suspect that exposure to this year's Hugo short story nominees actually killed some of my brain cells. I almost certainly will be marking No Award for this category.

Comments are in alphabetical order by surname.

"On A Spiritual Plain", Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014): Chaplain makes journey to release the spiritual remains at a physical site, for Reasons.

Meh. Just... meh.

"A Single Samurai", Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books): Sword-wielder in Japan-flavored setting strives to kill a monster the size of a mountain.

It's an unpolished story, which suffered by comparison to "Pacific Rim" every time the author wrote "kaiju", but good try!

"Totaled", Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014): Woman dies in car accident, becomes a component of her own research study.

This gets points for actual speculation on technology and its impact on the human condition! The execution is not awesome, but it's competent. I would read something else by this writer.

"Turncoat", Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House): AI-powered warship votes "no" on killing fleeing civilians, opts to defect to the enemy.

"Turncoat" is so cute! It's like reading a David Weber short story, only with even less grounding in science and also even clunkier prose! Take a look:

If I were a superannuated Homo sapiens sapiens, I suspect fear would have taken hold of me at that moment. Instead, I run a rapid analysis of the pros versus the cons of having my entire operating system rebooted and my memory banks wiped. The outcome is decidedly in favor of the cons.

In this story, suspicion is not an emotion, but fear is, okay. Cybernetic death is bad, and also that conclusion is delivered in a bizarrely convoluted sentence, okay. But the cumulative effects don't add up to a coherent vision. Weak, but I give it a few points for being oddball enough I kept reading to figure out the worldbuilding, even if the entire story was telegraphed by the title.

"The Parliament of Beasts and Birds", John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House): Animals meet, discuss humanity's departure from the mortal plain, are elevated to Manhood.

It's like C.S. Lewis, minus Lewis' mastery of the tools of writing. The style choices are all over the place, slip-sliding between parable, pulp, and contemporary irony. Look at this quote, emphasis mine:

And there were pleasure houses where harlots plied their trade, and houses of healing where physicians explained which venereal diseases had no cures and arranged for painless suicides, and houses of morticians where disease-raddled bodies were burnt in private, without any ceremony that might attract attention and be bad for business.

Whoa. Total tone-break right at the end of the last sentence. Also, minus one million points for working in a reference to "harlots" in a story with no women.

The erratic capitalization adds on to the style issues. First there is When Raven and Wolf came to where Hound and Horse and the slow and solemn Bull were all exchanging whispered eulogies and reminiscences, and put their question to him, the Hound shrugged philosophically. The animals' names are proper nouns! A paragraph later it's The wolf said... and The hound shook his shaggy head. Whoops, proper nouns dropped. Why? What is going on here?

It's hard to screw up pacing at this length, but the story really tries to. And the science is wrong. There aren't black lions. You can't have the waning moon rise at sunset, it doesn't work like that. If these are supposed to be a signpost of the End Days, or that we're in a fantasy story, well, the slip-sliding prose does not make that evident.
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I have cracked the Hugo Nominations packet! It's an exercise in suffering! No, really, I see writers I've "noped" out of in the past! For example, I have been hating on Kevin J. Anderson's mediocrity as a writer since the Jedi Academy trilogy was published in 1994! (Sorry, KJA. I am glad other people like your writing enough to support you as a professional writer, but I am profoundly unmoved by the overwhelming "meh" of your fiction.) I will be doing my best to apply my usual questions to what I read:

Are the ideas compelling?

Does the plot interest me?

Do the spelling and grammar conform to a contemporary style guide?

Have the spelling and grammar been mangled for good reasons that support the idea or plot?

Based on previous experience with Hugo nominees in general and some cursory perusal of the nominees so far, I have serious doubts about some of the nominees doing well when judged by these questions. To keep my head from exploding, there will be a very special guideline for this reading project:

Do I have serious reservations about the writer's grip on her or his prose? Stop reading.

Usually I am a die-hard finisher. Sometimes this is justified: Possession was a slog for hundreds of pages and came together in a dead brilliant fashion at the end. However, from the very first page it was clear Possession was in the hands of a writer who had a very clear grasp of what she was trying to do and the impact of each word and sentence, plus the cumulative effect of each little building block as the story unspooled into paragraphs and chapters and a complete novel.

I do not have faith each and all of the Hugo nominees will demonstrate such subtlety or control over their tools. So watch this space as I suss out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

More Books

May. 26th, 2015 09:13 pm
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The Cyberiad (Stanislaw Lem) (1965 / English tans. 1974): A collection of short stories about two Constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, in a parable or fairy tale mode.

Trurl and Klapaucius are robots, by the way. It took me a few stories to figure that out.

(It took me about a story and a half to mentally model Trurl off Rodney McKay and Klapaucius from Radek Zelenka, but that is neither here nor there.)

Works in translation are a tough read for me, as I am generally keeping in my mind two layers of interpretation: what the author is trying to say and what the translator thought the author was trying to say. Add in the complications of '60s writing translated into '70s vernacular read in the 2010's, on a smartphone, and see where that gets you. I found the prose tough going, having been spoiled by recent reading. But what I liked, I really liked. Mad scientist robots! The lurking humor nearly destroyed in translation! Every now and then it would break though. I particularly loved the hypothetical dragons, the treatment which starts "dragons are impossible, of course" and then uses the language of abstract mathematics to bring the hypothetical dragons into the world. I really want to reread this on paper, preferably in a better translation.

Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) (2014): Nonfiction. Dying in America and the first world. The thesis seems to be: the current system for caring for the aged grew out of mid-20th-century hospitalization, and as such answers to the metrics of hospitals. Safety is valued over autonomy. However, studies are showing that self-determination is correlated to better quality of life, and sometimes even longer quality of life, so rearranging The System to allow people to be the "authors of their own stories" as long as possible might correlate with reduced end-of-life costs, better quality of life, and even a bit of an edge on length of life. Some of this is very good, and rings very true to my experiences. Gawande echoes a thirdhand quote that "we want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love," (p106 HC) which seems like a trenchant observation. But sometimes the arguments get a little too tidy, a little too slick, as when Gawande talks about the Ars Moriendi, a guide to an "ideal" death. I detect the whiff of English classism in adherence to this standard, which made me a little more dubious of Gawande's arguments, no matter how compelling.

The Price of the Stars (Debra Doyle, James D. MacDonald) (1992): Being, as the cover so flamboyantly proclaims, Book One of the Mageworlds. It's absolutely classic romantic space opera, Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off. There's an assassinated Domina, her grieving smuggler-turned-war-leader husband's charge to their free-trader daughter to find the identity of her mother's killer, which eventually draws in psychic Adepts, the Domina's other two children, some dramatic faked deaths, a mysterious and slightly sinister man incongruously known as "the Professor", and, of course, dramatic space-chases.

Stuff blows up really well. I append the stamp of beach reading approval, and look forward to tearing through the rest of the series (long out of print) when I can scrape it up from used book stores.
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The Ships of Air (Martha Wells) (2004): Second in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. Road trip, including worldbuilding, with political marriage of convenience, only by "marriage of convenience" the story means "and they actually are kind of MFEO" with the occasional secondary character death to make me feel vaguely like this is not pure swashbuckling indulgence. Wells does really good ensemble work, which I really enjoy. The end of novel character reveal was... eh, I'd been spoiled by a Gate of Gods blurb. But structurally, there'd been a little too much of Absent Character infodump to be anything but setup.

The Gate of Gods (Martha Wells) (2005): Final novel in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. More of the same! The later reveals about the Gardier were adequate, if not as much fun as Our Protagonists and their trans-universe journeys on the Queen Ravenna, a close cousin of the Queen Mary. I could read about Tremaine and the Rienish factions figuring out how to deal with the Syprians all day. The larger scale politics aren't as much sheer fun. I like Wells in "people in small groups work to overcome obstacles" mode. I like the sense of humor at work. Oblique spoilers. ) I'm mentally bookmarking that for the next time I need something to cheer me up.

The Statue Within: An Autobiography (François Jacob) (1987): The 1988 Franklin Philip translation. One of the scientists who netted a Nobel for lac operon work describes his life, 1920 to 1959.

It's difficult to tell what style is an effect of translation. A certain approach to the structure of a sentence, of a paragraph. Short sentences. Almost too short. The gulf between the writer and the reader, widened by a translation. Does the sense of familiarity, of a like-minded outlook, reflect true similarity, or an effect imparted by chance? Questions unanswerable without learning another language.

Without getting too bogged in the exercise of imitation, this is not the most brilliant or compelling autobiography ever. There's moments of character sketches, there's moments of contemplation, but when I thought Jacob was going to skip over his WW2 experiences I cheered, because I picked this up with science, and insight into the creation of science, in mind.

With that said, there are moments of great beauty and personal resonance in the book. Reflections of the roles luck, chance, serendipity play in life; that unfocused mid-twenty's period; the way Jacob describes falling in love. It's a mind I am glad I met in text, where I can read a presentation with unthinking absorption, and again with a critical eye, and maybe once more with both layers added to the context of a wider world. Especially when the narrative lyrically opens into meditation on some incident or theme, like here on isolation, and a particular moment after WW2:

Doubtless, one is always alone. But not to the same degree, not in the same way. In Africa, it was the sudden break with my whole past that had given me a sense of isolation. Returning to Paris, I should have found what I had been missing. But it did not work out that way. I felt out of step. I felt I did not matter a great deal to anything or to anyone. Loneliness had become a sort of natural setting, an element; and in it, I immersed myself, as both island and ghost. Perhaps I was missing the fellowship of fighting men. Perhaps I envied those who were active in a political party and could say "we." But I had an aversion to parties and their lies. For several months, the conquerors remained isolated by their victory, the conquered by their defeat. The time came to reunite. To smooth things over. Which revolted me. One evening near the Ópera, I entered a café. It was the hour when the colors begin to falter, to free themselves little by little from the sun before being lost in the oncoming evening: as the fish that one throws back in the river take on the color of the water before disappearing in it. Though the window of the café, I looked at the crowd going by on the boulevard. I was trying to identify people. To type them. To search their faces for signed. Signs of the hangman and of his victims. Clues to the torturer and to the tortured. To those who had fought the Nazis and to those who had done business with them. But everything was leveled, equalized in the evening's grayness. Nothing but smooth and neutral faces. All these people passed one another, ready neither to flee from each other nor to come together. The world was submerging the horrible tragedy that had lasted five years, closing over it like water over a stone. Then what would joining a political party be but a coat with holes? An illusion thrown over loneliness.
(p200 HC).

That moment of timeless theme and personal experience is sticking with me.

Dreamsnake (Vonda M. McIntyre) (1978): [personal profile] skygiants read it, so I decided it was time to reread this for the first time in more than a decade. The catalyst of the story is the novice healer Snake losing her dreamsnake, the symbol and tool of her practice, and setting out to explain her failure to her teachers - then switching up to seek out a new source of the rare, difficult to breed dreamsnakes to atone for her mistake.

The '70s, you guys. The Seventies. The tail end of the New Wave. So the narrative structure is loose: Snake's goals change more than once as she interacts with and connects to new characters. The "hard" technology of the Campbell years, spaceships and nuclear power, is not an unmitigated good or the inevitable march of progress. In this postapocalyptic landscape, the desert Snake crosses is dotted with radioactive craters, the deadly aftermath of a conflict so distant the hard fallout is its only legacy. The speculative elements are the social structures and genetics. There's unquestioned polyamory, and pretty frank discussions of sex, but homosexuality is oddly invisible.

In my usual fashion, the only thing I remembered was the dreamsnake reveal at the end, and the irony that the healers' successful attempts to breed more dreamsnakes were accidents; I'd forgotten 90% of the novel. Snake's rashness, pride, and self-consciousness about her failures, I'd spaced out on those. The three-ness of the human relationships, and the three-ness of the snakes, is something I'd also spaced on.

I'd like to say there's a three-ness to the structure or themes, too, but that's not quite right. The wandering structure drapes over episodes about fixing things, either injuries or attitudes, in a way that I'm still thinking about. Spoilers. ) It's definitely SF in the postapocalyptic vein, rejecting the Old and trying out new things. I like that; even when it doesn't entirely work, I like it when fiction stretches my brain.
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Stories of the Raksura, Volume One (Martha Wells) (2014): What the cover says: less than novel-length stories set in the world of Wells' Raksura novels. "The Falling World" is one of the adventures of Indigo Cloud court, some time after The Siren Seas. A party led by Jade is lost on a trading trip, and a rescue is lead by Moon and Stone. "The Tale of Indigo and Cloud" covers a kidnapping which shaped later relationships between the renamed Indigo Cloud court and Emerald Twilight. It's a pretty serious history story, but also a story about Raksuran politics, as shaped by Aeriat and Arbora psychology and biology. If you like that sort of worldbuilding detail, you'll really enjoy the story. "The Forest Boy" is a story about young Moon, from an outsider PoV, and also about the bitter fruits of jealousy, which I found surprisingly moving. Chime's transformation is covered in "Adaptation".

Saga, Volume 4 (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples) (2014): I was a little over-excited for this, which wasn't helped by the plot of these issues. The tropes in play were not the tropes I love. Spoiler-cut. ) Volume Five is still on the to-buy list, but it's been downgraded in urgency.

Finished a back-to-back reread of Leckie's Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. AS is a middle novel, oh yes. I encourage readers to consider it in light of Cherryh's Foreigner series, where the narrator is not exactly unreliable, but questions the validity of his interpretations of everything in agonizing detail. There's this extrapolation from fiddly micro-events to the macro impact on the two-species planetary political scene. Breq is an unreliable narrator, with a trick of focusing on exactly what is in front of her and not cluing the reader into the wider context. Spoilers, and lots of speculation. )

Walk to the End of the World (Suzy McKee Charnas) (1974): One of those '70s dystopias where war and technology have destroyed the world, with cannibalism, and explicit descriptions of what happens to the bodies. I can see how the nuanced elucidation of the white males' racism and misogyny, alongside the institutionalized drug use (oh, the '70s) and casual homosexuality propelled this novel to a retrospective Tiptree, while being nauseated by the experience of reading about the horrific abuse of women, and did I mention the cannibalism?

(Tangentially, marijuana is not a hallucinogen. Unless the nuclear fallout caused some really interesting mutagenesis. Yes, it's a minor thing to notice, but the implication of hallucination-by-hash is the sort of detail that throws me out of the story.)

The worldbuilding is satisfyingly elaborate, while being right up there with The Handmaid's Tale for upsetting character-sanctioned sexual assault and related horrific human rights abuses. It's useful to read, as a complex well-executed story, and as part of the tradition of feminist science fiction, but it was full-on dystopia with barely the faintest spark of a better future.

The Wizard Hunters (Martha Wells) (2004): Fantasy novel, first in a trilogy.

Wells has this very direct approach to what could be very dark situations which can be extremely entertaining. Lots of snark in the middle of dramatic action sequences, lots of action relative to contemplation and internal cogitation, and this expectation that people can work together, even when they meet in the middle of a firefight. Or maybe that's especially when they meet mid-fight.

Cut for space, limited spoilers. )

This is Wells in awesome compulsively readable mode. I had a vague idea I'd pause between The Wizard Hunters and its sequel, The Ships of Air, to read the earlier Ile-Rien novels I'd picked up at the library. Then I read the first chapter of the next novel online. And the second. And... as soon as I could, I went back to the library to check out The Ships of Air.


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April 2017

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