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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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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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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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While typing part of this, I rewatched the DS9 episode where Eddington taunts Sisko with Les Miserables. It's the wrong book for the metaphor the story was trying to write: Valjean doesn't lead revolutions. Sorry, Eddington; your heart is in the right place, but you're looking for another Hugo protagonist, I think.

My reading log is so behind it starts with last year's WSFA small press nominee voting bundle. The contents were:

Cut for space, along with story comments. )

Readers, feel my shame. I reread Mercedes Lackey. )

I did not venture into Mage Winds / Mage Storms territory (much), instead making a hard swerve into the Vanyel trilogy. It seems I still have many feelings about the (possibly unintentional) structure of foreshadowing and capital-D Destiny, while being less and less invested in the actual story. Teenagers are not all that good at life decisions, who knew? Teenagers with superpowers are not that good at life decisions with superpowers, not shocking! Unless you are a Herald, apparently.

One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love (ed. Rebecca Walker) (2009): Essays on family. A mixed bag, which killed some bus time.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Dan Fagin) (2013): Nonfiction. A recounting of the history of a chemical plant in a New Jersey town, and of the legal wrangling that arose during the plant's decline. Long, heavily end-noted, very well written. There was enough science I can look up the technical aspects for more details, and the science that was in the book was clearly described for a lay audience. The legal aspects also seemed well done to me, evoking the tedium and inanity of major legal actions, and the ambiguous closure - or lack of closure - associated with the final settlements.

Also, I will never look at tap water the same way. Highly recommended.

ETA, 2015: SAN trimer results complete, ambiguous. The study is discussed in Fagin's book in some detail.

For reasons, I reread broad swathes of Kage Baker's Company novels (1997 - 2007): In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game, The Children of the Company, The Machine's Child, The Sons of Heaven, and the short story collections Black Projects, White Knights and Gods and Pawns. You'll note I skipped The Life of the World to Come, as my feelings on Mendoza's romance start at "faugh, this is not an entirely consensual relationship!" and go downhill from there.

The Company novels are wonderful entertainment: there's great worldbuilding with a number of clever little touches; a deep and wide cast of entertaining, well-evoked characters; coherence of plot and theme; deft comedic timing. They're not flawless: the Mendoza romance is predicated on some deeply sketchy "Edward is Always Right" nonsense. It's possible to argue there's an arc where Nicholas and Edward and Alec learn they aren't all that, but it's not entirely clear to me that's in line with the author's intention. I am happy to burble at length in comments, particularly about Joseph, or series structure, or the little gray men.

Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie) (2014): Sequel to Ancillary Justice. It was enjoyable, in a way that is a little aslant of AJ.

Spoilers for both novels. Also, probably nonsensical without reading both novels. )

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss) (2007): Fantasy novel. The retelling of the youth of Kvothe, called the Deathless, the Bloodless, Kingkiller, etc, by the red-haired green-eyed innkeeper Kote.

Jo Walton reviewed this favorably, and one of my friends really liked it, so I made an exception to my Fat Fantasy Epic rule. (The Rule: "Don't.") It didn't move me as strongly as others have been moved, but I'm intrigued by the artifice of the framing story. We're being told a story! The narrator may be rather unreliable! I certainly hope the portrayal of women is a side effect of the precocious mid-teens male protagonist PoV. The language is polished, nearly invisible, except when it does something particularly beautiful.

I still find myself inclined to wait until the trilogy (or series) is finished or permanently abandoned before reading the second novel.
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What better day than reading Wednesday to tackle the backlog of the last - ahem! - months of things read?

Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (Jason Henderson) (2013) gives what it says on the tin. The author enters a discourse on the car and car alternatives in San Francisco, viewed through the interactions of three major camps defined by Henderson: progressives, neoliberals, and conservatives. That concept I found an interesting lens for viewing some of the history of transportation in the City, but the execution was somewhat draggy. Perhaps it's a side effect of the intended (academic?) audience? The prose is decent, but less than brilliant, hampered by several quirks or writing choices. It may be a philosophical choice to obscure some parties' names - forces of history versus Great Man? - but ultimately I think some of the elliptical references to, say "the recently elected [public official]" instead of explicitly invoking Agnos or Jordan or Brown undercuts the enjoyment of placing the events and the writer's interpretation of events into a larger context. Also, it damages the book's long-term relevance to people outside the scholastic/social justice hard core. Speaking obliquely of the 2011 interim mayor who said he was not running for mayor and then did is relevant information, but why not just say, "Ed Lee, interim mayor who..." for the person stumbling across this in 2020?

I was also disappointed to see scant attention to another sort of mobility, the physical body's perceived or actual capabilities, as a component of car-centric "automobility" and alternatives. Calls to improve transit and increase trips by bicycle are great, but the failure to acknowledge the role of physical and mental ability to negotiate alternative transit options was a notable gap that could have benefited from greater attention.

It would also be interesting to hear the author's take on the flurry of taxi-like services like Uber and Lyft. On the one hand, expanding ride-share expands non-auto-owning options for urbanites, a progressive goal; on the other, the target audience for these services seems to be a smartphone-savvy class the author might not consider particularly progressive.

When the Hugo nominee lists were published, I put Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie, 2013) on hold, and got to read it in June. It's a strong first novel, but after finishing it I was surprised it vaulted to the Hugos. Then I looked at the rest of the list, and started listing the things it does: a solid workmanlike job with a double-stranded narrative, tricky PoV issues, a great job with the relationship between Seivarden and Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, big fat space opera worldbuilding delivered in reasonable chunks that (1) set up a mid-novel plot reveal, (2) takes your "the future will be genderblind" and says, "oh really, let's play that out to a logical conclusion" in understated efficient and effective tight-third narrative, (3) get really creepy with respect to police states, concepts of self, and concepts of culture if you start thinking about it... and it became less surprising.

Spoilers discuss plot and worldbuilding. )

I am not certain I can say this rewards close attention in the manner of some SF classics, but I am sufficiently intrigued to look for Leckie's shorter works and keep an eye out for her next novel. Certainly would encourage others to read this, but with the caveat to bring adjusted expectations.

For reasons I am having a bit of a middling-gray tea-time of the soul, but in this time of self-reflection I was graced with a ray of light, or at least validation that I'm not the only fool in the world. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile (2012), a tedious mix of ego and One True Theory which confuses anecdotes with inductive reasoning*. Personal weightlifting goals as an entry point to biological "overshooting". Unnamed high school acquaintances as a door to psychology. Feelings on the "inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature". (Cruel betrayal by the laws of physics. Wow.) And I find that, somehow, I am not all that enthused by analogies of failed entrepreneurship to dead soldiers. The loss of money and being laughed at is a crisis from which one might recover; unless one is religious, being killed has no Chapter the Next.

*Author: "No, you do not understand. Go read Black Swan and the light will shine upon you."
Me: "Maybe, but given the ratio of ego to insight, I find myself strangely reluctant to waste more time on this prating. Come back with an endnote including datapoints replacing each instance of isolate personal experience, mister. If I want thought experiments I will revisit New Wave science fiction and its inheritors."

The concept of examining that which is harmed by chaos (the fragile), that which is neither harmed nor benefits from chaos (the robust), and that which benefits from randomness (the antifragile) seems like a good idea, and the book came recommended as "interesting", but I think it's time to chalk this up as "superficially intriguing, unforgivably sloppy execution" and move on, before I devolve into asking "is the author saying type systems should be antifragile and constructs within a type class should not be?" which is going to end with a five-paragraph rant on infrastructure deprecation and sustainable value extraction from high-diversity ecosystems (of organisms and businesses).

Dis-rec, unless one brings a drinking game.

On impulse, I picked up World War Z: An Oral Histroy of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) (2006), a post-apocalyptic mockumentary of an international zombie plague. Zombies are very much not my thing, but fragmented narrative where the reader is expected to pay attention absolutely is up my alley. Much of the book was a fine dance between queasiness (zombies, ew) and assembling the implicit narrative. There's some enjoyable second-order worldbuilding details, as the interviewees reflect on their experiences: initial cover-up attempts; humans fleeing early outbreaks, not necessarily smartly, and the consequences; novel military tactics; individual and collective survival actions.

I am told the movie based on the novel focuses on an action-adventure Brad Pitt character seeking first Patient Zero and later an utterly ridiculous biological shield from zombie attention, in ways strongly divergent from the tone and themes of the novel.

Julie E. Czerneda's Survival: Species Imperative #1 (2004) is the first Czerneda novel I've picked up in, oh ten-plus years, when I read her first novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger (space opera, with telepaths, and aliens, and telepathic aliens who look sufficiently human for a romantic thing, with amnesia). Survival is in a similar tradition of space opera. Research-obsessed scientist is unwillingly, even unwittingly drawn into interstellar politics! There are aliens! There are life-threatening cross-species miscommunications! There is emotionally significant long hair! There are terrifying interstellar conflicts between aliens! The main character has four given names, opting for the gender-neutral "Mac" over Mackenzie Winifred Elizabeth Wright Connor, and who can blame her?

There's some interesting twists on space opera embedded in the sprawling narrative: intersections of biology and interspecies diplomacy, strong professional friendships within and across genders. Our Mac has Romantic Tingles for one character, a Coulson-esqe secret agent man, but that's one (running cold and hot) thread of a much larger social tapestry. At least as important is her relationship with another - female - researcher, and by the end of the novel it's looking like that friendship is going to drive far more plot than anything to do with Mr Romantic Tingles, tying into her interactions with an alien researcher and the plot twists associated with his secretive species.

That social tapestry is one reason the novel takes so long to get moving, flirting with sabotage and investigations before stretching out for places unfamiliar to Mac and the reader. The prose is workmanlike third person tight-ish, with one quirk: the italicized-thoughts convention is in third person past tense. So something like, "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of them, Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends themselves (DAW pb p21)" would be "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of us, Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends ourselves in most novels. Flouting genre convention is no bad thing - see Ancilliary Justice - but generally I enjoy it most when there's a reason the trends are being ignored. In this case, with much of the narrative hewing closer to ground familiar to the McCaffrey-Lackey-ish generation, it didn't encourage reflection on the cool or interesting things the story was doing so much as it threw me out of the narrative pretty much every time it cropped up, throughout all 435 pages.

I'm feeling no burning rush to tackle the sequel. This was entertaining without leaving me a burning desire to find out what happens next, so it'll probably be saved for bus or airplane reading when I'm in a Big Fat Space Opera mood.

The current book in hand is Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (originally published in 2001; reading the 2007 edition with a new forward), which strips any romantic illusions about fine restaurant dining from the reader.


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