Review: The Deep by Clipping

Los Angeles based experimental hip-hop group Clipping were a welcome addition to the 2017 Hugo Ballot with their album Splendor & Misery. I really enjoyed the depth of what they had created. This year they have a single song in the Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form ballot.

I’m not adept at reviewing music beyond like/dislike but here the issue is looking at their song “The Deep” as a piece of drama. Written for an Afrofuturism special of This American Life ( ) the song is apparently based on a different bands science-fictional backstory. Michigan electro band Drexciya based their music around a fantasy backstory of an underwater civilisation in the Atlantic:

“Every Drexciya EP navigates the depths of the Black Atlantic, the submerged worlds populated by Drexciyans, Lardossans, Darthouven Fish Men and Mutant Gillmen. In the sleevenotes to The Quest, their ’97 concept double CD, the Drexciyans are revealed to be a marine species descended from ‘pregnant America-bound African slaves’ thrown overboard ‘by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Could it be possible for humans to breathe underwater? A foetus in its mother’s womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air?”

Clipping’s song starts with a heavily modified electronic-style voice explaining:

“Our mothers were pregnant African women thrown overboard while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers until their world came to destroy ours. With cannons, they searched for oil beneath our cities. Their greed and recklessness forced our uprising. Tonight, we remember.”

And the song then recounts the conflict.

It’s certainly an engaging idea – a reprise of resistance to colonialism and first world hunger for resources at the expense of indigenous people. However, as a five minute song it neccesarily lacked the depth of story and drama that could be conveyed in an album. There’s a basic story there but if we treat it only as a piece of drama it is lacking and that doesn’t really feel fair to it.

Here’s a review that does it more justice That’s the same blog that did such a good job of explaining Splendor & Misery. There’s also a link to the track at the end and here also:


Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

A locked room mystery, a generation ship off-course, a snarky AI with secrets, and more clones than you can shake a food replicator at – Six Wakes has it all. The ‘clones’ are more like 3D printed people that come fully grown and complete with memories – a clever conceit that works rather like re-spawning in a video game. In effect, Lafferty’s clones have a potential infinite life-span, so long as they can afford to be re-cloned and keep their personalities backed up.

So who better to pilot a ‘generation ship’ on a long journey to another planet, than a crew of clones who can replicate themselves? Ah, well not this crew! The novel starts with the crew waking in crisis from cloning tanks and finding the murdered bodies of their last iteration floating in zero gravity in a spaceship out of control.

Murder, secrets and lies: the small crew have their fair share of each and an apparently incapacitated AI unable to explain what has occurred.

Mixing a day-by-day account of the crew’s investigation into themselves with flashbacks that flesh out the social history and legalities of clones on future Earth, the story rushes headlong into a science fiction murder mystery thriller.

Original in scope but using familiar ideas, Six Wakes feels like an updated variant on classic Philip K Dick territory. Paranoia and core questions of the nature of personal identity take centre stage, pushing the more violent mystery into the background. Motive and the fragility of memory are incrementally examined as we learn more about each crew member’s backstory.

Hard to say more without spoilers. I thoroughly enjoyed this story but I’ve some doubts about the ending (again hard to elaborate). I thought the pacing was impeccable – mind you the last book I read was like watching a glacier melt so my perspective may be distorted!

Suffice to say my Hugo ballot for best novel hasn’t got easier. Did it blow my socks off? No, but I think it is a worthy contender.

[Thank you to the friend of this blog who donated a copy for review purposes. I have vowed to buy my own when it becomes available. Orbit doesn’t have a good record with Hugo packets but in this case surely letting voters outside of the US read the book is only fair! ]

Review: New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

Woah this took me awhile to get through! I’m not keen on the term ‘hard sci-fi’ and anyway I don’t think it is novels like this one that people mean by the term. Let me suggest instead that some science-fiction makes more effort to reduce suspension of disbelief. Kim Stanley Robinson has taken this approach before – for example his Mars trilogy was crafted to give almost a sense of a drama-documentary of the colonisation of Mars.

With New York 2140 Robinson looks at our future with two lenses – climate changes and world finance – and to do it he picks a specimen that can convey both. Future New York is a partially flooded neo-Venice that has survived (sometimes barely) catastrophic sea-rises. While much changed from its 20th century form, it remains a city of hedge funds and high-finance even as older semi-flooded districts crumble into the sea. The city has adapted with reinforced buildings, new materials, suspended walkways and yuppies in fast boats.

The book’s global microscope zooms into a small set of characters who have made their home in New York’s famous Metropolitan Life skyscraper near Madison Square Park. Each chapter follows a character (or character pair) in sequence including:

  • Vlade – the building supervisor who suspects the building has been sabotaged.
  • Mutt & Jeff – two eccentric ‘quants’ whose unorthodox perspective on financial instruments has led to them having powerful enemies.
  • Gen – a NYPD detective who finds that her life in the building and her work intersect.
  • Roberto and Stefan – two semi-feral children making a living scavenging in the flooded parts of the city.
  • Amelia – a celebrity nature documentary/environmental activist with a tendency towards accident prone adventures in her airship.
  • Franklin – a financial whiz-kid with an (apparently) cynical outlook and a fast boat.
  • Charlotte – Head of a NGO and chair of the building’s residence association.
  • A ‘citizen’ who provides a more omniscient overview of world events and history.

Each chapter follows parts of each characters day over several months, with various incidents and events, some of which are just stuff that happens and some of which tie into a wider plot.

It took a long time for me to warm to this book. I can’t fault the writing, each chapter has its charm and they are all well crafted. Without a doubt, Robinson is an excellent writer and constructs prose that’s readable and engaging…but I really didn’t warm to the individual characters and often the book felt aimless. It is not that there aren’t major events (a storm, even a quasi-revolution of sorts) or intrigue (kidnapping, rogue private security firms, nefarious drone submarines, sunken treasure) but 50% of the way in, I still didn’t feel drawn into the story. I would read a chapter and think ‘that was quite nicely written’ and then put the book down. It wasn’t the info dumps either (which I thought were very nicely done actually) – I’ve a high-tolerance for quasi-factual stuff in the fiction I read. Basically, the book just didn’t draw me in and did not compete well with other distractions! 60% in and I considered putting it aside and reading something else but in the end I stuck with it. As plot lines resolved and the story headed towards an almost utopian wish fulfilment ending, I enjoyed it a lot more – the dreaded ‘message fiction’ aspect of the book gave it the extra spark it needed.

Maybe I would have enjoyed it more with an uninterrupted read over a lazy holiday? I’m not sure but I certainly liked it better by the end!

Hugo wise? Yeahhh…not going to top my ballot. It is a decent addition to the six finalists and helps demonstrate the breadth and ambition of contemporary science-fiction & fantasy but it’s more a book that will gently warm your socks than eject them from your feet.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The book has a slow but entertaining start as a cast of characters, families and settings are introduced – not that many but enough to give a sense of the size of the universe we are looking at. Sharp dialogue keeps the story flowing as broad-brush strokes history of a mercantile human space-empire is introduced. You have to admire how artfully John Scalzi does this – no big info dumps just carefully rationed explanations around the time that they’ll be needed for the plot but without them feeling like they’ve been plucked out of thin air.

The influences are clear, classic space-opera plus modern space opera (there are some Banks-like moments) plus multi-character/feuding families/Game of Thrones like elements but crafted together into a book that is its own thing. It lacks the complexity or depth of an Iain M. Banks novel but then again this book is only the set up for a longer saga. As such it succeeds on its own terms – the premise of the saga is established by the end of the book: a human mercantile empire run by and for a few powerful families faces a calamitous collapse due to physical changes that will prevent interstellar travel.

How those themes will be developed, the extent to which this premise will mainly be just for the purpose of a fun space-opera or whether the world Scalzi has created will be examined in more depth (and The Expanse has proven both are possible), we don’t know yet. The Collapsing Empire is a solid foundation either way and I was keen for the next book at the end of this one.

But as a Hugo nominee? Hmmm, not going to be my top pick. Craft alone isn’t enough – also it is competing with two more unusual space operas. The Collapsing Empire just feels like a start to a story. It is not quite the same problem that Too Like the Lightning had last year (when it was basically half a very long book) but it is a related issue – I can’t really judge it because it isn’t finished enough. It is a good argument for the continuing need for a Best Series category (although I find that category difficult). It doesn’t lack other themes but they just aren’t explored yet.

So a good read that aptly demonstrates John Scalzi’s skill but in a field that includes The Stone Sky, Provenance and Raven Stratagem, it will be low on the ballot. Above No Award? Sure, it is an apt demonstration of the range of things that are potentially award worthy and it is packed full of promise.

Next up Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and then by hook or by crook Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes.


More Packet Pondering

Thank you for all the helpful suggestions so far. I did an initial run through 2017 and came back loaded with way too much stuff.

I’m thinking of a new plan. First compile a large collection of favourites from 2017 and then put that on Smashwords so people can download it in any format they like. That will be the “bumper” version. Then cut that compilation down to something a lot more readable with a focus just on a small number of things – that can be the concise version for the packet. The packet version can then have a link to the bumper version.

I liked that idea so much I then wasted the rest of the day making book covers.



Packet Advice

Now that the cat it out of the bag (it was the easiest way to hide him from the feds), it is time to ask for help, advice, suggestions for the Hugo Packet! No request yet from Worldcon but I should imagine they’ll stuff quickly when they ask for it.

  • Firstly I’m not aiming to win this thing and I don’t like to feel like I’m competing unless the stakes are really low or absurd. However, I would kind of like my Hugo packet stuff to be so really good that people say ‘I’m voting X number 1 but Camshaft Ferple’s Hugo Packet was really good even if I’m putting him 6th’.
  • Secondly, I’d rather have more than less. I can see advantages to less as a voting strategy but I’m more interested in people finding something they like.
  • Thirdly, variety is good – so different styles of things rather than multiple examples of the same style of thing.
  • Fourthly, it has to be fan-writing obviously but that is a fluid category.
  • Fifthly, I’d prefer to avoid Puppy related stuff but I’m open to suggestions – and the posts on Vox Day’s attempt to spoil Collapsing Empire’s sales may be topical. Also, the stuff on the Dragon Awards may seem off in a Hugo packet, so I’m less keen on that.
  • Sixthly, I have no issues with putting daft and silly stuff in there. It’s part of the brand 🙂
  • Seventhly, politics is fine so long as it has SFnal elements IMHO.
  • PICTURES – yes, they can make file size big and upset some ebook formats and aren’t accessible to everybody but for many of us, a visual/spatial aspect is super important for making sense of things.

This post was the first cut of possible things. Some things I can just link to or have part 1 of and a link maybe?

So…ideas, suggestion, tips, faves, advice (I will have stuff copyedited (!) so don’t tell me that a hundred times! ) – put it in the comments and I’ll get to work! 2017 posts only obviously