Category Archives: Reviews

Hugo Novels: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

History takes a slight turn. President Dewey (instead of Truman) is the post WW2 US President but early 1950s America is much the same. Women, having become a vital part of the workforce during the war are being pressured to return to a more traditional role. Overt segregation is still the norm in much of America but a civil rights movement is working against it. It’s a world that imagines itself unburdened but which is actually in free-fall through social and technological change.

Then a meteorite hits.

Elma Wexler York is a former child prodigy. The ambitious daughter of a general and a doctor, her life up to moment of the astronomical impact has been one of privilege and good fortune, all be it privilege frequently limited by her gender. Combining a love of mathematics and of aircraft, she was an accomplished W.A.S.P. pilot during the war, ferrying fighter aircraft for the US Air Force. Post war she works as a ‘computer’ in America’s satellite program where her equally smart husband Nathaniel York is chief engineer.

The meteorite impacts changes America permanently. With Washington DC destroyed and much of the eastern seaboard devestated by tsunamis, the Yorks have to survive not only the immediate impact but also adjust to the new reality of America post-impact. Worse, Elma’s own calculations show that immediate damage from the impact will be small compared to the climatic changes yet to come caused by the meteorite.

This is Elma’s second outing as a character. She first appeared in the novelette ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ (https://www.tor.com/2013/09/11/the-lady-astronaut-of-mars/ ) which has its own complex Hugo nomination history, as well as a 2014 Hugo for Best Novelette. In the novelette, we meet Elma much later in life, living on Mars and faced with a personal dilemma.

The Calculating Stars has a more grounded aesthetic than it’s predecessor, and aims to present a plausible alternative history where the space program is accelerated and is also a more international collaboration. In the centre of this effort is Dr Elma York who desperately wants to go into space but who must also navigate through the complexities of 1950s America.

It’s an engaging fictional autobiography of a remarkable person — the kind of multi-talented character that you find in accounts of America’s space program. Drive, talent, brains and luck conspire to put Elma in a spotlight but the attention that comes with it reveals Elma’s greatest weakness: social anxiety in crowds when she is the focus of attention. Ironically the press characterising her preemptively as ‘The Lady Astronaut’ complicates her attempts to actually become an astronaut.

I did really enjoy this. I found Elma an engaging and emotionally honest character. Her naivety about the society she lives in, tests her understanding of the world far more than the orbital mechanics problems at which she excels. She only begins to start grasping the deep racism in her society in the wake of the meteorite impact and despite having encountered her fair share of sexism, the obstacles she encounters even once women are accepted for astronaut training drive the conflicts in the story.

As a setting, there’s a brilliance to using this time period of space flight. It is a period of heroic pilots and mathematics at a human scale. Solving orbital mechanics problems in your head is a believable skill and allows the story to have its fair share of heroic people who are just really good at what they do. Even the nearest thing to an antagonist (the misogynistic Stetson Parker) is a genuinely talented pilot and effective teacher.

I hadn’t expected how strong the post-apocalyptic themes were in the very early parts of the book and I was disappointed that the return to normality (aside from the space program and one food riot) happens so quickly in the book. Not that it is implausible (especially given that there is a bit of time jump) but I just enjoyed that aspect earlier in the book and I think it added to the whole.

I think is going to be a strong contender.

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Star Trek Discovery: Such Sweet Sorrow (S2E13)

Lots of tearful goodbyes as Discovery Season 2 boldly spins it wheels where no show has spun its wheels before. Not a lot happens but what does is dripping in significance and/or red herrings. Fans of the ‘Short Trek’ mini-episodes will find their pre-series watching rewarded also.

But there’s not much I can say without spoilers so don’t go past the fold:

Time Crystal containment unit: do not breach

Hugo Shorts 2019 Round Up

Well I’ve read them all and I can’t believe that there was a time in recent memory where people were genuinely worried about the state of short fiction. This is an entertaining crop of stories with real variety and a wealth of ideas. I love it when the set of nominees work as a whole — people deride democracy as somehow being inimical to good decision making or aesthetics but the Hugos when they work are a notable counter-example.

I see these stories as three pairs and each pair offers something different.

Form and structure

My two personal favourites play with form and structure and push the boundaries of a what a short story is or should be.

STET” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018) [my review] – it is absurd this wasn’t a Nebula finalist given that the Nebulas is an award for and by writers. It’s a very worthy Hugo finalist but the Hugos are different kind of award. I love every piece of this story, the use of a different genre of writing and the way the story is revealed by talking around events instead of talking about them.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018) [my review] – is more than the sum of its parts and each of those parts are intriguing glimpses of other worlds. Like STET it isn’t a conventional story and avoids a beginning-middle-end structure for good reasons.

But playing with form and structure is something that ticks lots of my boxes and that’s not for everybody. There’s a different challenge in writing a story that is fresh and original and which conforms to the conventions of the Short Story as a genre rather than as a word count. I get why these might not be some people’s top picks but you can expect to find these two at the top of my voting.

Humour and story telling

A good yarn and a tall tale is at the root of our love of fiction. Sex, violence, fear and laughs is what we want at a visceral level in our camp fire tales.

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018) [my review] offers both violence and humour in a bedtime story for young dromaeosaurs. Nicely executed, just as the titular Prince’s horse gets nicely executed.

The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018) [my review] has less violence and no dinosaurs but is much sexier and gets wry humour out of the disconsolate fae-folk who feel somewhat used by Ms MacGregor.

I’m glad both of these are on the ballot as they create a more rounded set of finalists. However, neither are top choices on my ballot.

The price of magic

The final pair both explore magic tangentially, looking at the personal cost and limitations of power and proximity to power. To act is to change another person’s life and hence all acts have a capacity to be violence in a broad sense. The obverse is that every choice not to act has the capacity to be negligence. Two powerful and yet superficially lowly people face their own dilemmas around power and the personal consequences of power.

The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018) [my review] is the darker of the two. The life of a man from street urchin to magical servant to a king is told as he gains arcane knowledge.

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018) [my review] presents the opposite problem. A powerful witch who is forbidden from acting but who finds ways of making some lives better.

I’m not sure which I prefer of these two stories. They are both masterfully executed. With a different set of other finalists, I could imagine putting either of these two at the top of my ballot.

Hugo Shorts 2019: The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T.Kingfisher (Uncanny)

Of the two short stories I hadn’t already reviewed is also humorous and styled around folk tales. In this case the story switches the convention in a more direct and less dinosaur related way:

The men were faerie boys, first to last, tall and sharp-boned, with cheekbones like swords. The selkie was a great hulking brute with his sealskin draped around him, muscle smoothed with a layer of fat, and a gleam in his eye like the last light on the sea.
The horse was a horse, except when he wanted more beer, and then he was a man with a mane of black hair and eyes that glowed like rubies in his face.

They sat around the fire, far from the fae court, and stared into the flames. Fire is older than faerie-kind and even they can be hypnotized by its dance.

“What gets me,”
said one of the men finally, “what really gets me is that she went and married the blacksmith.” https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-rose-macgregor-drinking-and-admiration-society/

“She” being the eponymous Rose MacGregor, a woman more cunning than a pooka, more fae than a fairy and more irresistible than a selkie,

We meet each of the broken hearted magical folk in turn, drowning their sorrows after their encounter with Rose MacGregor.

Cheeky and funny, there’s not much more else to say about it. It’s hard to do it justice in a review as it’s strength is in the execution. It’s nice to have funnier and fun stories as finalists.

Hugo Shorts 2019: The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny)

I feel, for some reason, that fiction written from the perspective of dinosaurs is of special interest to me and so I can’t help but be entertained by a story that begins this way:

“Once upon a time, long, long, long, long, long, long, ago, there were three raptor sisters, hatched beneath a lucky star. They lived in a wood together, they stole sheep and cattle together, and all in all, there was no tighter-knit hunting pride of matriarchal dromaeosauridae between the mountains and the sea.”

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-tale-of-the-three-beautiful-raptor-sisters-and-the-prince-who-was-made-of-meat/

A trio of Jurrasic Park-style raptors (essentially a modern version of a mythic beast) are placed into a fairytale setting where the raptors are the protagonists. Not surprisingly mammals get hunted and eaten.

A not too bright prince accidentally wanders into the hunting territory of the raptors but his surprise appearance makes the raptors suspect that the surrounding humans are planning something. So, after making a meal of his horse, the life of the prince is spared and one of the raptors chooses to return to prince’s castle in attempt to discover what the humans are attempting.

At court the raptor is befriended by a princess with ambitions to become a witch and from there the story proceeds deftly but unsurprisingly.

It’s an amusing and nicely crafted fairy tale that is exactly what it claims to be. The meeting of raptors and humans does not go well and, as heroes of fairy tales often have to do, the raptors have to use their natural wit to regain the upper hand in their encounter with the humans.

A good story but not a particularly great one. As I said earlier, it is pretty much complete in itself and nicely put together. However, there’s also not much beyond the core premise: raptors in a fairy tale. In a tough set of short story nominees, this one doesn’t have any extra edge.

This Week is Hugo Short Week

Firstly this post is an excuse to steal from JJ’s ever useful File 770 post: http://file770.com/where-to-find-the-2019-hugo-award-finalists-for-free-online/ I’ve copied from there the list with links of the Short Story finalists and added links to my review when I have one:

And wouldn’t you know but I’ve actual read and reviewed four out of the six finalists! Three of the finalists I reviewed as Nebula Finalists and separately I reviewed (or gushed about) Sarah Gailey’s STET from Fireside.

That only leaves “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher and “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander. I’ll post review of these today and tomorrow and an overview post later in the week.

Next week and the week after I’m off on a secret mission to high places, so the blog will be shuttered and the keys carefully hidden so nobody takes it over in my absence.

The world building of Us (deep spoilers)

Jordan Peele’s frankly terrifying film Us really unnerved me. I wanted to see it again before writing more about it but I don’t think I’m going to get an opportunity anytime soon. I really want to talk about how the intentional absurdity of some of the premises in the film work really well i.e. the underlying explanation of events doesn’t stand up to pedantic scrutiny and that not only doesn’t detract from the film but is played as an advantage.

This means spoilers, so I have waited a week. I will be talking about most of the big reveals in the film, so don’t go further if you haven’t see it and don’t want spoilers.

Don’t go into this fun house of mirrors