19 Nov

The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

I will admit, it took me a couple of false starts before I got far enough into this book for the momentum to keep me going. I’m used to reading fast and this was just not something I could read quickly, not because of density or complexity but because of its strangeness, because I had to pause and absorb so much. Beyond the prologue, you are dropped into a world that you need to make sense of, that is far future but feels past, that is post-human in a way that I don’t remember ever seeing before. It may have taken me a while to get started, but once I did I was hooked, in large part because I simply wanted to understand.

The writing really hit on something I love, the addition of small details that add so much to the world you’re experiencing. Like the parasite on the eyeball of the fish early in the story. They’re not beautifully wrought descriptions, nor should they be; they’re simple but visceral elements of the world that help draw you into the experience.

There were things that gave me doubts. It’s a bit sexist and homophobic in ways that I really don’t expect from science fiction anymore, especially stories that capture me the way this did. But to be fair that added to the sense that this is not a modern, technological society; it’s not our past, but it’s something else entirely, like a different branch on the tree. (Which is not to say that it is not technologically advanced, but in ways that we wouldn’t expect nor could we possibly understand, which strikes me as something very right for a novel set at such a distant time.)

When I finished the book I went back and reread the prologue, because upon first read the story seemed to jump somewhere else entirely after that, but upon rereading it all came together in the end.

07 Oct

“The Next Scene” by Robert Reed

The story delivers an interesting premise, where the only profession left after the rise of the machines and the enslavement of humanity is basically being more human than human, being the best actor you can be. There’s something that works for me in the public/private dichotomy for the actress (highlighted in the last line, an act which nobody watches), and to be fair this is entirely her POV, but for all the subtlety that the story implies is the pinnacle of success for its protagonists, it shows remarkably little finesse when it comes to exploring the ideas of just who or what did the conquering and why humanity fell in line. I’m left with a lot of questions the story doesn’t really address, such as what happens when people simply carry on being genuine people without consciously playing the game. Seems like they would be the winners.

07 Oct

“Damnatio Ad Beastias” by Kristi DeMeester

Horrific and heartbreaking in equal measure, and for the same reasons. Every one of the characters has seen so much and been through so much, and there is more than one kind of monster, sometimes in the same person. The werewolf—or really, the transformed monster—mythos is played very differently here, both in its cultural place and in its management, but the monstrous drive, and the flipside of human horror and remorse, is very familiar. Ultimately, the psychology of loss and guilt and defensiveness and addiction can drive us to act more monstrously than nature ever could.

07 Oct

“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home” by Genevieve Valentine

I usually don’t warn about spoilers, because if you’re reading a review of something then it rather goes without saying, but this time really—experience the story for yourself first, then come back. Don’t worry, this’ll keep.

So! This is really kind of brilliant. You think it’s one story, then another, then it turns out it’s about something else entirely, something richer and deeper and much closer to home. It might’ve been a well-conceived story about interstellar travel, or a well-conceived story about virtual reality, but it’s way more than that, tying its story–and it does have one, with a powerful emotional heart–into themes of prisoners’ rights and medical experimentation and—and I know this might seem frivolous compared to the other two but hear me out—gaming culture, expectations and doxxing. Coming a couple of months after the release of No Man’s Sky to similar expectations, if not similar technology, it actually has something to say about that, and about what drives consumers, and at whose expense our expectations–or entitlement–are, or are not, met.

I’m keeping this one in mind for when awards season rolls around again.

01 Oct

“Unauthorized Access” by An Owomoyela

There was a time when a story about data hacking and the surveillance state was the stuff of cyberpunk and pure speculation. Right now, most elements of this story are so near-future it could exist tomorrow. This is a journey through an emerging culture, rather than something that doesn’t yet exist (if sometimes only in proto-form), and that journey is riveting.

The speculative elements are highlighted primarily in the generational disconnect, the idea that people all have the same tools and live in the same world but very few really understand it (this doesn’t just apply to hacking, but also to understanding just who the power-players are in a data-driven world, like the energy companies). This plays out on different levels in several relationships—Aedo’s original incarceration and Aedo and Cadares, which both position Aedo both implicitly and explicitly as part of a younger, culturally data-savvy generation; and also Aedo and LogicalOR which positions Aedo as more naïve, in opposition to her relationship with Cadares. It feels particularly important because it resists creating a dichotomy of “good guys” and “bad guys” or “smart people” and “clueless people”; there are a lot of layers and levels and we might identify as any one of them, or of different ones at different times in our lives.

The fact that Aedo has just been released from prison (to middling fanfare), highlights another of-the-moment issue: people criminalising what they are afraid of, rather than what is actively harmful to them (in many cases their own actions). This seems to me to be a very timely statement right now, in this context and many others. I’m left with questions—particularly just what information Cadares was seeking—but like any MacGuffin it’s not really relevant. The story is in the seeking, and what that seeking shows us about ourselves and our world.

30 Sep

“Under One Roof” by Sarah Pinsker

I thought I knew where this story was going, based on a fairly extensive knowledge of genre tropes, but I didn’t, and that delighted me. It wasn’t so far afield that I could characterise it as shocking or revolutionary, but the horror—as it were—didn’t come from any kind of malevolence on the part of the mystery, but from within an otherwise gentle and sympathetic protagonist. The horror is knowing what is inside of us and what we are capable of, and in knowing that others know it. I confess to being a little bit unsatisfied by the ending, but then that lingering sense of unfinishedness and friction is part of what makes the rest of the story effective.

24 Sep

Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher

sevenwondersAt its foundation, this is a story with a lot of really interesting ideas—particularly those to do with the symbiotic roles of superhero and supervillain, and the sometimes fine line between them—but in execution it’s kind of a big ol’ mess. The novel that’s described in the summary only lasts for maybe the first quarter of the book then it veers off into several other directions, often without much sense or transition, and most of the characters are simultaneously unlikeable and lacking any depth; the members of the Seven Wonders themselves could almost be interchangeable but for their powers.

There are also some delightful bits, like the enumeration of the remaining superheroes on the planet, but they also don’t fit (especially considering what happens following their introduction). It wants to be fun, thoughtful and dark, and doesn’t entirely succeed at any of them.

23 Sep

“The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

I was intrigued by this piece right from the title, which hints at a story that questions gender roles and privilege. What I got was more an upending of pronouns than roles or identities, which made me question a bit what it was all meant to amount to. The vivid yet fable-like narrative did keep a good pace and drew me through the story, and the worldbuilding felt quite well realised, but it chopped in places and didn’t quite draw me in the way I hoped.

23 Sep

“Toward the Luminous Towers” by Bogi Takács

Reminiscent of Johnny Got His Gun, an unwilling soldier is pushed beyond the reasonable limits of endurance into a state where free will and communication are taken from them, and they struggle to retain what personal power they can. It’s dark and cautionary, exploring the lengths to which a person can be exploited in the name of protecting their “people”.

What struck me most was the juxtaposition of a neuroatypical protagonist and the depersonalisation of the soldier. It is a reality for some neuroatypical people that neurotypical people assume they don’t “feel” things; that idea is taken to escalating extremes here. At one point early on the protagonist refers to themself as “a smoothly functioning component in the machine”, a prescient statement in horrific ways. Read as a metaphorical exploration of what it feels like to be depersonalised, it becomes even more powerful to me than as an anti-war statement.

18 Jul

Super Extra Grande by Yoss

seg-yoss I have never read anything quite like this, and found myself wishing it were twice as long (or more!) because just imagine the adventures of the space veterinarian! The possibilities are endless! Funny and fast-paced and deeply creative. [And also deeply sexist. Now, a lot of that is on the narrator, who explicitly acknowledges his misogyny and of course its his POV that flavours the whole book, but its also woven into the narrative and worldview in general.] I am very glad I know a bit of basic Spanish, because all the dialogue in the book is in Spanglish—the lingua franca of the galaxy’s ftl-spacefaring races—but with high school French and a smattering of Portuguese and Spanish, and an ability to take clues from context, I understood about ninety percent of it barely needing to pause, and the rest with a little thought and some judicious google translate.