Category: Reviews

SFWA announces the Nebulas

Award nomination season is upon us. A time when fandom puts on new fashions and reads entrails and mixes metaphors. And to warm things up here are the Science Fiction (and silent F) Fantasy Writers of America (or Anywhere else) Nebula Award nominees! With my comments appended:

Novel

  • All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
  • Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
  • The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Ninefox GambitYoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
  • Everfair, Nisi Shawl (Tor)

No surprise with All the Birds in the Sky, Obelisk Gate or Ninefox Gambit. I thought City of Blades might be on the list.

I haven’t read Borderline, so that’s a nice extra to look out for. Likewise, Everfair wasn’t really on my radar (I recognise the cover, which had caught my eye). Too many books and not enough time to read them.

In terms of a diverse set of authors, that’s a notable mix that I hope won’t be notable in the future because we’ll just expect a broad mix of voices. Different genders, male and female, cis and trans. Different ethnic backgrounds but having said that, quite US heavy (all born in the US?).

Novella

  • Runtime, S.B. Divya (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
  • Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “The Liar”, John P. Murphy (F&SF)
  • A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)

Or a category that screams “You haven’t caught up on your novella reading”. Heavy on Tor.com entries – which isn’t a surprise given their output of novellas. A Taste of Honey, Every Heart a Doorway and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe are sitting impatiently on Mount To Be Read. Three other new names I’m not familiar with to catch up with as well.

Shorter fiction categories:

Novelette      

  • “The Long Fall Up”, William Ledbetter (F&SF)
  • “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea”, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)
  • “Red in Tooth and Cog”, Cat Rambo (F&SF)
  • “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary, Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny)

Short Story

  • “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander (Uncanny)
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
  • “Sabbath Wine”, Barbara Krasnoff (Clockwork Phoenix 5)
  • “Things With Beards”, Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld)
  • “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door”, A. Merc Rustad (Fireside Magazine)
  • “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong (Tor.com)
  • “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station│Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed)

Now an increasing sense of growing Catholic guilt redirected into the quasi-secular pursuit of fiction is growing. I mean I knew I hadn’t read enough because of yet to be filled spaces on my Hugo ballot but….Like novella, there is stuff here I’d *meant* to have read already.

I did really like “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong and “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander but there are other sources of stories beyond Uncanny! Talons has gathered some marmite reactions – I guess because it is so short that it doesn’t have much narrative but I really liked the punchy anger of the piece, rather like a story refusing to be a different story.

Hugo nominations close soon: must read some more short fiction!

No suprises in the Bradbury (Dramatic Presentation) section

Bradbury

  • Arrival, Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, 21 Laps Entertainment/FilmNation Entertainment/Lava Bear Films/Xenolinguistics
  • Doctor Strange, Directed by Scott Derrickson, Screenplay by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
  • Kubo and the Two Strings, Directed by Travis Knight, Screenplay by Mark Haimes & Chris Butler; Laika Entertainment
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Directed by Gareth Edwards, Written by Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy; Lucusfilm/ Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
  • Westworld: ‘‘The Bicameral Mind’’, Directed by Jonathan Nolan, Written by Lisa Joy & Jonathan Nolan; HBO
  • Zootopia, Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, & Jared Bush, Screenplay by Jared Bush & Phil Johnston; Walt Disney Pictures/Walt Disney Animation Studios

Haven’t seen the Westworld TV series. Still haven’t seen Kubo and the Two Strings 😦

Norton Award (the YA award)

Norton

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers)
  • The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi (St. Martin’s)
  • The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan UK; Abrams)
  • Arabella of Mars, David D. Levine (Tor)
  • Railhead, Philip Reeve (Oxford University Press; Switch)
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies, Lindsay Ribar (Kathy Dawson Books)
  • The Evil Wizard Smallbone, Delia Sherman (Candlewick)

I haven’t read any of these so far but some interesting titles in the mix.

Review: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

I could have sworn I’d written this review already but apparently not. So a bit less than fresh, as I read this several weeks ago. Sorry.

It is the ancient future! Humanity lives among the stars on strange space habitats of unfathomable age, populated with other aliens, inscrutable technology and eccentric robots.

Between the artificial worlds, space ships catch the solar winds on the massive sails and plough the depths of space in search of treasure! Secreted across the trade routes, booby-trapped citadels hold incredible secrets – alien technologies, some benign and some effectively cursed. Humans with special talents read the thoughts of eldritch skulls that speak across the vast distances between worlds.

Humans with special talents read the thoughts of eldritch skulls that speak across the vast distances between worlds. While other humans follow a more traditional profession – PIRACY!

Yes, swash your buckles and hoist your mainsail! This is a bloody tale of pirates and revenge on the high seas, um, spaceways.

Reynolds is a dab-hand at space opera and Revenger helps show his range. The strange habitats and deep future have a little in common with his book House of Suns but otherwise, this is an unusual setting for Reynolds – with a bit of a Gene Wolfe feel and a classic pirate story of an innocent who learns to become a woman to be feared.

There are twists but few surprises as if Reynolds wants to fit in everybody’s expectations of a dark tale of one sailor’s encounter with a notorious, almost mythical pirate ship. The setting is decidedly space fantasy with technology that is unapologetically close to magic.

Dark escapism told impeccably well.

Is Hidden Figures Science Fiction?

I’ve actually written a longer piece on this film, which is still unfinished and may be unrescuable because of far too many tangents (less obvious ones including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a toilet, and the nasty rightwing Christian ‘Focus on the Family’ group). In the meantime, this is an attempt to address the question I intended to address in the other piece but never actually reached. Somehow Ludwig Wittengstein* ended up in this one. Sorry, he gets everywhere.

Continue reading

Review: Hidden Figures

Go see @HiddenFigures ! No, really you’ll love it if you have a soul. Heck, I don’t have a soul and I loved it.

Firstly and primarily, the central trio Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe have such a sparkly chemistry together that they could have easily carried a lesser film. Yet each in their turn bring life and depth to the individual stories of the three women.

It’s the early 1960s and the USA is playing catch-up in the space race. A ‘computer’ at this time is a person (primarily women) employed to do manual calculations. Katherine Goble is a mathematical (and arithmetical) prodigy, Dorothy Vaughan is the unrecognised supervisor of the ‘coloured’ computers and Mary Jackson is a frustrated engineer – unable to access the qualifications she needs to be recognised because of the segregation of Virginia’s schools. Over a backdrop of growing cold war tensions and civil rights struggles, they each play a vital role in NASA’s attempt to get a man into orbit.

Yes, the social politics, the gender politics, the race politics, the orbital mechanics and the algebra all get heavily simplified for the purposes of plot BUT you get a film with all those things in them that simplifies without trivialising. There is only one scene where I winced (Jim Parsons explaining what going into orbit means to a bunch of NASA scientists) but plot exposition appeared to demand it.

And mathematics is heroic! Taraji Henson is utterly convincing as a mathematician tasked with solving the problems of safely bringing an astronaut back from orbit and there is some actual maths shown.

Yes, it’s a feel good movie but what it offers is the chance to believe that three women can solve complex problems by using their brains and tenacity – and that’s an idea I’d like to feel good about.

Review: Diaspora by Greg Egan (1997)

I’m very late to the Greg Egan party. I don’t know why – just never picked up an Egan book and read it. Diaspora was extraordinarily ambitious and yet Egan managed to keep an inherently sprawling idea focused and on track without compromising any of the ideas.

Diaspora plunges into the deep end: the science that is fictionalised is the science of consciousness, pure mathematics (especially topology), and fundamental physics but the story also takes on more humanist questions of survival, what it means to be human and also questions of identity and society.

The thread of the novel follows Yatima, a person who is ‘born’ in a ‘polis’: that is a human intelligence that exists purely as software in a giant virtual community of such people – most descended from actual people. The opening chapter, describing the formation of their mind (i.e. their birth) can be read in full here: http://www.gregegan.net/DIASPORA/01/Orphanogenesis.html

It’s head first into a transhuman future. Most characters are polis citizens: intelligent software living virtual lives but with human emotions, desires and ambitions. Each polis has its own culture and an important aspect of that culture is the attitude towards reality. Some citizens are inclined towards heavy interaction with actual reality, engaging with what is going on with the rest of humanity in various ways. Others are solipsistic, withdrawn into virtuality and moulding alternative realities of their own.

The citizenry are not the only descendants of humanity though. People exist in two other major groupings.

Gleisners, like citizens, are software intelligences but unlike citizens they are embodied and interact with reality in robot bodies. Obsessed with space exploration, the gleisners are culturally different from the citizens but are in active communication with them.

Fleshers, are biological humans and represent the most diverse group. Exuberant fleshers have genetically modified themselves in myriad ways to the extent that the capacity for common language between fleshers has become difficult because the sense-experiences of different groups may be radically different. Statics are humans with little or not modifications, who are seeking to retain humanity as it was.

The obvious choice of point-of-view for this setting would be to focus on a static as a reader stand-in and explore the world of post-humanity from that perspective. Egan avoids that, and chooses a story and focus centred around the citizenry.

Having said that, the main plot of the story really only begins when two citizens (Yatima and Inoshiro) download themselves into two abandoned gleisner bodies and attempt to visit the flesher community of Atlanta. This visit, establishes relationships based on a common humanity which becomes vital as the story progresses and all three kinds of humanity face an astronomical disaster.

Dimensional realities hidden in fundamental particles, competing theories of wormhole generation, software clones of people designed to communicate with crab-like being living in different orders of reality. It’s a kind of Alice in Wonderland rush of ideas but played straight as ‘hard’ science fiction.

Loved it. I’ll need to re-read it and bit more slowly soon, as I’m sure I missed bits.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers has more than proven herself to be a writer to watch out for but I really only enjoyed 50% of this book.

The story moves tangentially from the previous book, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Leaving the crew of the Wayfarer behind, the ship’s AI Lovey has illegally embodied herself in a synthetic body (for reasons explained in ALWTASAP) and is going to live planetside with Pepper – an incidental character in the previous book. It is an interesting set-up for a story about an AI both hiding their nature and learning how to be a person.

Pepper reveals that part of her motivation for helping Lovey (who takes on a new name ‘Sidra’) is that Pepper herself had been raised by an AI and here the story takes a turn.

The novel splits into two alternating accounts. Firstly the story of Lovey/Sidra learning to live in a human/alien society but also a flashback account of Pepper’s childhood as a cloned worker (called Jane just like her numerous siblings) in an industrial scrap heap.

Jane’s story of survival is compelling. It has tension, pathos, adventure and is well paced throughout. Sidra’s contemporary story?

Sidra’s contemporary story? Hmmmm, I found it too dull for my tastes. Well executed but primarily about fitting in. Yes, there was some tension from the fact that in this otherwise hyper-tolerant society AI’s are not recognised as people, and Sidra’s kit body is highly illegal but…well that never really rings true mainly because everybody we meet is so very nice. Well thought out alien cultures abound but this, in turn, creates character interactions that tend towards infodumps.

Very quickly, I found myself trying to get through the Sidra chapters to get to the next instalment of Jane’s attempts to escape her plight. I suppose that then made me take even less interest in Sidra’s quest to find a way to reconcile her former disembodied existence with her new life in a complex society.

Definitely an interesting novel and like A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet it has a focus on personal relationships and personal journey’s of self-discovery amid a complex universe with aliens that are more than just humans-but-different. Maybe not a story for me though.