Jan 17, 2017

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

At the forefront of the burgeoning translated Chinese science fiction scene is this Hugo Award-winning novel about Earth's first extraterrestrial contact. Long story short: it doesn't go so well. Rooted firmly in the incredibly difficult years of the Cultural Revolution, Liu's characters take a particularly dim view of human nature. Our main character, Ye, is forced to watch her mother denounce her father then her father murdered simply for the crime of being an academic; even carefully hiding her own intelligence isn't enough to keep from being noticed by a certain group of people, and political pressures see her giving up any hope of future freedom to work at a research base with a heavily-cloaked purpose. These scenes are interspersed with the present time and our second protagonist, a scientist working with nanotechnology named Wang, and his journey through an immersive video game called Three Body.

That's the most I'll give away about the plot, which is best left for the reader to unfold herself. While I am supremely impressed with Liu's story - the physics, the fully realized alien culture, the philosophical implications of humanity's long-noted self-destructive tendencies - the writing itself left me a little cold. As with all translated works, it's impossible to know whether this is an accurate reflection of Liu's writing or the translator's own interpretation, a frustration I often encounter when reading in translation. Though Ye's struggles are horrific, the story is told so plainly that I found it difficult to connect with her. The only character with any real life to him is Shi Qiang, a veteran police officer with a serious attitude problem, and apparently the only person in all of China (and perhaps the world) with a sense of humor. My disappointment with the writing doesn't diminish, however, the importance of this novel, both for its overarching, epic sensibility, characteristic of the most interesting science fiction, and for the role it has played in bringing Chinese science fiction into the mainstream. Ken Liu is an author in his own right, and I have his short story collection sitting on my shelf. I look forward to dipping into it.

Jan 8, 2017

The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman

There was a time when I read historical fiction almost exclusively, I believe in my early teens, before I discovered science fiction. Since then, I've tended to stay away from the genre due to its tendency to be formulaic. A formula, however, doesn't stop something from being entertaining, as this medieval English romance/mystery/war story proves. We follow a few main characters: Emma, a young girl from the fen who is abused horribly; Gwil, the middle aged mercenary who finds her, nurses her back to health, and raises her as his own; and Maud of Kenniford, a young noblewoman made a pawn in the war of succession between Empress Matilda and King Stephen. No one gets off easy. Sorry, that's an understatement: rapine, murder, torture, and betrayal abound. It's a bit much for a reader like me, to be honest. I can't abide reading about horrible things happening to good people, and as fetchingly plucky as Emma and Maud are, it's not enough for me to overlook the horrific violence against women.

While the writing itself is good, I'm not a fan of the narrative device used to move the story along. The story is broken up between the present day and the past, the latter being the story itself and the former being an old abbot telling the story to a young scribe. It's really unnecessary, inserted only to introduce a twist at the end that is painfully obvious, plus now that I think about it, the twist wouldn't even be necessary if that part of the novel didn't exist. It's extraneous, serving only to take away from the actual story. So while generally enjoyable this book was, I'll not be picking up many more historical fiction novels in the future.

Jan 2, 2017

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

It's interesting that 2016 saw two powerful novels written about the same subject with an alternate history twist to each. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead replaces the figurative railroad with actual railways. Underground Airlines is a bit more sinister: the Civil War did not end with the emancipation of the slaves, but rather with permanent amendments protecting slavery in any state that wishes to retain it. The novel takes place in the present day, with four Southern states still participating in that most despicable of practices. Built into the Constitution are protections for those states, including a branch of the U.S. Marshal Service that hunts down runaway slaves and returns them to their owners. The other states represent varying degrees of collusion; most states have passed laws preventing businesses from dealing directly with slave-holding companies, and some have made it illegal to force a black police officer to participate in the search for and detainment of runaway slaves. Despite these well-meaning efforts, racism - both overt and subtle - is still very much at work in these free states, and whites who fight against the situation are invariably taken in by the Mockingbird mentality: oppressed black, white savior. Sound familiar?

While Winters was writing this novel, much of the racial tension I just described had been simmering under the surface of American culture and politics for years. With the election, and the wave of hate crimes that immediately followed it, the fallacy of a post-racial America has been brought painfully to the surface. The world Winters built is not so surreal anymore, as it has become clear that race does indeed still play a large role in 21st Century America. The government that turns a blind eye to racial violence and the people who perpetrate that violence are just as much a part of our world as they are a part of our anti-hero's. It's chilling.

Now onto the writing. The novel feels more to me like two books than one - the first is about finding Jackdaw, the second is about finding the package. Winters has written series in the past, so I'm curious why he jammed so much into one book. It was a bit exhausting, to be honest. Our anti-hero, known through most of the book as Victor, is a black agent of the U.S. Marshal Service who tracks down runaway slaves. He's very good at his job, and something about this newest case just seems off to him. He pulls back layer after layer until finally reaching a sordid secret. I don't want to reveal anymore about the plot because this is definitely worth picking up, I just wish it were a little less busy. The story could have easily be split into two books, and I would have readily picked up the second if it had been cut off just after the finding of Victor's prey. As it stands, the book stuffs a very eventful week into just over 300 pages. I think two 250-page books would have been a more enjoyable read.

Once we get into that second half, the writing also becomes a little frenetic and disjointed. Victor is experiencing emotional upheaval, which in Winters' writing is expressed with lots of repetition of phrases and substantially more emotion-coded words than the first half. Perhaps this is another reason why I felt splitting the story into two books would have been smart. The second half is practically a different novel anyways, as Victor is a very different person and the writing reflects that. Instead of being pulled into his emotional state, I felt put off by it due to the sudden switch in writing style.

Despite these flaws, this is an important addition to contemporary American fiction on race. It throws into high relief the absurdity of claiming race does not play a role in America, or that racism does not exist. We may no longer have race-based slavery, but there are huge swathes of our population who seem to look back upon that dark time as their glory days. The growing voice of the racist, misogynist groups that seek to relabel themselves as the "alt-right" show that Winters' alternate reality is not so very different from our own. Read, be made uncomfortable, then go do something about it.

Dec 26, 2016

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley

An interesting thing happened when I was about halfway through this collection of essays from noted feminist science fiction author Kameron Hurley: I was watching the movie Tombstone, a classic with a boatload of (then) young 80s stars portraying the infamous Wyatt Earp and his band of lawmen, and it just wasn't doing it for me. I'm not usually one for Westerns but it felt like something else was going on with my feeling of distaste. I do enjoy a good action flick and there were snarky one-liners aplenty, but something just felt off to me. About an hour in I realized that it's because the movie is just one big machismo-loaded circle-jerk. It's about MEN BEING MEN out in the wild west with guns and horses and gambling and liquor. The romantic story is between a MARRIED MAN and a beautiful entertainer, while his wife sits at home getting high on opium and looking oh so helpless. Despite the fact that women made the west what it was just as much as the men (and let's not forget the Mexicans, Chinese, and Blacks who were all equally active participants [not to mention the Native Americans who got trampled on in the process]), this story hardly includes them except as complications to a MAN DOING WHAT A MAN'S GOTTA DO.

Now, I'm not saying that before reading Hurley's essays I wasn't a feminist, or wasn't aware of the whitewashing and male-washing of history. But spending a week reading these essays about the abuse women and people of color and non-binary gendered folk deal with on a daily basis from both the world at large and the science fiction community in particular throws everything into high relief.

Especially enraging are the essays that detail the abuse Hurley and authors like her endure from within the SFF community, one you would think would pride itself on inclusivity. Of course it doesn't. Like nearly every aspect of life, SFF is dominated by white, economically privileged men. This is rapidly changing, though, as evidenced by the failure of the Sad Puppies to dominate the Hugo Awards when they tried to. More and more people are standing up for themselves and each other, speaking up when someone says, "I'm the norm, people like you don't exist or don't matter," fighting back by showing that, in fact, "people" are not monochromatic or mono-gendered. It's a big wide world out there, and we all live it in together. If those of use who are different never speak up, then those who assume we don't exist will never be forced to change their worldview.

I found her essays on writing particularly interesting, and important for creators of all kinds to take to heart. There's so much emphasis on talent that it's easy to forget how much incredible hard work goes into writing well. Even the best writers have editors. Hurley points out writers need very thick skin because every writer endures so much rejection; but writing is a skill that can be developed just like any other, and you CAN get better at it the more you practice.

My one complaint about the collection is repetition. I can probably now recite Hurley's life story from memory, so many times did I read about its progression. This is, of course, the danger of an essay collection along a tight theme. Hurley writes for all kinds of outlets and often writes about the same topic in different forums, so the redundancy isn't surprising. I did get a little tired of hearing the same things over and over again, but thankfully the different slant to each piece helped mitigate possible boredom.

While there's certainly an aspect of "preaching to the choir" here (who do you think is going to pick up a book called The Geek Feminist Revolution?), it's important because it serves as a notice to all those feeling along in the world that there are PLENTY of people who agree with them. Thank you, Kameron, for being brave for those who are still working up their courage to speak out. We've got your back.

Dec 15, 2016

Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Doig

When you hear the phrase "writer of the West," your mind probably jumps immediately to John Steinbeck, deservedly so. But there is another author who writes the West brilliantly, albeit in a very different fashion: Ivan Doig. Doig's milieu is the rugged cowboy West, the West of Idaho and Montana and Wyoming, rather than the sun-soaked Central Valley West or rain-soaked coastal California West of Steinbeck. Doig's characters invariably display an approachable erudition, a homesteader's know-how, and gumption to spare. These are the backs upon which were built the farmlands that feed America, and the gold mines that made her rich. Doig's writing is incredibly smart, with a nearly-British cadence that no doubt contributes to my admiration. As a bookseller, Doig is my go-to for that certain fiction reader who wants smart without snobbish, excitement without lurid details.

Sweet Thunder follows a certain Morris Morgan, learned as an Ivy Leaguer with a rather colorful past that (of course) comes back to bite. Morgan and his wife live in Butte, Montana, home to the massive copper mines that are helping to electrify the nation - the year is 1920, by the way. Morgan is tapped to write scathing editorials of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which makes obscene profits while paying next to nothing in taxes and endangering the lives of their workers with horrible conditions while paying them a pittance. The Thunder, as the new newspaper is called, is meant to work in concert with a newly elected state senator to right these economic wrongs. But a company that big and wealthy doesn't go down without a fight...

While it's not my favorite Doig novel - Whistling Season takes that title for me - this is still an utter pleasure to read. Funny, exciting, smart, it's just a darn fine book, especially on these wet, winter nights.

Dec 8, 2016

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

I received this collection of science fiction short stories through a Reddit gift exchange. Despite the fact that I adore sci fi short stories, the cover of a human head made out of mathematical equations intimidated me, and it sat on my shelf for four whole years. What changed? People started talking about a movie called Arrival, and a week or so later, I realized that the movie is based on a story in this collection. Intriguing! So I put it on my nightstand as my next read.

Whoever that anonymous Redditor was four years ago has impeccable taste. Ted Chiang's stories display an astounding intelligence and originality. The story on which Arrival is based - "The Story of Your Life" - marries physics and language in a stunningly brilliant manner, all while paying equally careful attention to character development. "Seventy-Two Letters" is another fine example of uniting two wholly different ideas into one consistent, unique worldview. In this case, it is the Jewish golem and Hebrew numerology added to an old explanation for how life forms, wherein each organism exists fully but in miniature until an impetus causes it to grow.

What's so impressive is how technically advanced these stories are while simultaneously being beautifully written. I almost want to hate Ted Chiang for being so damn smart and talented all at once; it's hardly fair to the rest of us that one person can be this gifted. I know that sales have picked up very nicely for this book after the movie's release, and I hope people enjoy it as much as they have the movie, and that Chiang gets the readership he deserves.

Nov 30, 2016

The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan

Marina Keegan had recently graduated from Yale in 2014 when she was killed in a car crash. Only a week or so beforehand, she'd published the titular essay of this collection in which she exclaimed that she and her fellow graduates were "just so young," and that they had so much time in which to live their lives. I've read plenty of dead authors, and some of those works were written at the end of the authors' lives. The difference, of course, is that they generally knew it. They were dying of cancer, or heart disease, or old age. So when Keegan's essays and stories hint at or loudly proclaim their nervous excitement for the rest of her life, it catches at your heart. Keegan had already written for the New York Times, interned at The Paris Review, and had her plays performed. Her professors were astounded by her, her classmates looked up to her. So when her death occurred mere days after publishing "The Opposite of Loneliness," the essay went viral. This compilation of essays and short stories was put together by her family and professors as a testament to Keegan's youthful talent, so her name might be remembered.

Keegan's fiction is very slice-of-life, which I'll admit isn't quite my taste. The last story, however, is absolutely chilling and brilliant. "Challenger Deep" follows a deep sea submarine crew that is in crisis. Their ballast tanks blew, they've fallen to the bottom of an abyssal trench, and though their power is on, the lights don't work. They have been in complete darkness for days, then weeks. They have rations for six months, and only a slim chance of rescue. The story is incredibly emotional, and the imagination it took to write about what humans in complete darkness must feel is amazing.

The essays are well-formed, though like the stories, only one really stood out to me. "I Kill For Money," wherein Keegan profiles a cheerful exterminator, is emotionally illuminating and a pleasure to read. I hate to say that I liked it best because there's so little of her in it, but that is one of the biggest distinctions between it and the other essays. I think that getting out of her head allowed her creativity to flow more freely.

It truly is a shame that we won't get to watch Marina Keegan develop as a writer. Though I didn't love all her pieces, she was clearly very talented and by all accounts had the drive to really accomplish something with her writing. I'm glad this book at least will be her legacy.