Review of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

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This is a science-fantasy novel published by Tor. It ended up with 18 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Laurence and Patricia are talented children. Laurence is a tech genius and Patricia is a witch. They don’t know how to hide out, so they’re bullied in school and end up hanging out together out of shared misery. Even their parents misunderstand and mistreat them. Later as adults, after they find their niche with appropriate groups, they run into one another again. The world seems to be ending, so Laurence and his friends try to build a machine to move people elsewhere. The organization of witches opposes this as a doomsday plan, leaving the two factions at odds. Can Laurence and Patricia come together to save the world?

Pros: I really like the first section of this novel. The writing has just a bit of hyperbole that gives it humor, and if you’ve read back through the blog, you can see I think bullying an important subject. Besides being so miserable and destructive to the recipient, it persecutes really gifted children and keeps them from making connections and developing their talents. This novel is also a complex work—Anders thanks her father for help with the philosophical conundrums.

Cons: Laurence and Patricia are pretty much sidelined after the first section, and the great beginning gets lost in accusations of self-aggrandizement, questions about responsibility and counter-maneuvers that leave everyone totally lost and impotent. Bad things happen. The ending is trite and fairly predictable. The writing may be quirky and absurdist, but it contributes to a feel that the novel doesn’t know what it’s trying to accomplish. It suffers very badly from mid-novel sag and doesn’t ever really find itself again. Maybe it’s about impotence in general? I’ll give it a few points for the philosophical conundrums.

Three stars.

Review of The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

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I’m done with a couple of the novels before the short story, after all. Went on a brief tour with a singing group over the week end and read on the bus. Jemisin’s novel was published by Orbit. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

After Nassun’s father Jija kills her brother Uche, he takes her south ahead of the smoke and ash of the Rift, eventually ending up at the Antarctic comm where the Guardian Schaffa welcomes them. Essun, meanwhile, is still at the Castrima comm, where she and the stone eater Hoa have found a group of people accepting of orogenes. The dying Alabaster, who tore the Rift in the continent, is also at Castrima, and he tells Essun she needs to learn to connect the obelisks in order to correct the moon’s orbit and stop the Seasons that have nearly caused human extinction. Paradoxically, Schaffa tells Nassun the same thing. While Essun is still struggling with controlling her powers, Castrima is threatened by another comm. Can she defeat the invaders and save the world?

I wasn’t looking forward to reading this one, as I actively disliked last year’s The Fifth Season. Maybe I was just ready for the scenario this year, but this one suited me a lot better. Pros: The story is complex but narrated fairly consistently this time (second person for Essun and third for Nassun), which makes it quite a bit more readable. It still moves at a glacial pace, but the action rises continually to a nice climax at the end. With the plan to rescue the moon, we have some hope of making things better, but the risks here are such that I’m not expecting any of these people will survive. Maybe Nassun.

Cons: Introducing magic into the mix sort of muddies the waters. I thought orogeny was a natural, inborn talent to manipulate the earth and that this was science fiction, but now these people look like witches instead and I’m uncertain about the rules of their magic. Also, I’ve lost that little pique of wonder about the obelisks, but it’s balanced a bit by some scary things going on related to free will. I still don’t much like the characters, but this novel looks quite a bit more award worthy than Jemisin’s entry last year.

Four and a half stars.

Intimidating people into silence

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In the last blog, I reported on a group (wisely anonymous) who advanced an article challenging Cecily Kane’s 2016 Fireside article that used a statistical analysis to show anti-black bias among SFF editors. Although the anonymous authors agreed there was a bias against black authors, they disagreed on the cause. After threats, they withdrew the article. Fireside then posted the article on their site.

So, what was the problem here? Why were these authors threatened? Was it because they challenged Kane’s specific conclusions about editorial bias? Or was it because they challenged possible gains that might have been made because of Kane’s article? Is this a political issue? Are the anonymous authors misguided statisticians? Or are they really racists trying to undermine black progress?

The interesting thing is that this isn’t an isolated case of attacking and bullying people, not just for their social/political views, but also for research that might contradict the opposition’s conclusions. It’s actually a fairly common theme in US society right now. While Charlie Rose was on medical leave recently, stand-in Dan Senor hosted social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. (See brief article and video of the show  here.) They had an extended discussion about Charles Murray’s experience during a speaking engagement the first week of March at Middlebury College. Protests led college officials to change the engagement to a broadcast, but as Murray was leaving, he was physically attacked in a brawl that injured a professor. The panelists observed that we’re used to hearing about this kind of thing in the case of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, but Murray is just an elderly academic doing research that some people don’t like–and is vilified for it. According to Haidt and Bruni, the individuals who threaten and attack like this are actually a small group who plan to gain advantage by making slurs instead of arguments (i.e. labeling and inciting against people as racists, sexists, homophobes, etc.). This makes the group a socially powerful force within a community, mainly because people are afraid of them. Think trolls.

But what happened to the research here? Can we really ignore scientific research if we don’t like the results? The anonymous authors and Kane both agreed there was an anti-black bias at work in SFF story publication, but how can we work to remedy that situation unless we have a clear understanding of the cause? Kudos to Fireside for putting up the opposing article. It makes them look gracious, for one thing, and also interested in a real discussion about the issue.

Rebuttal of the 2016 Cecily Kane Fireside Article

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That finishes up reviews of all the short works from the Nebula Finalists. The novels will take me a little while longer to go through, but in the meantime, I’ll try to review some of the Rabid Puppies recommendations for the Hugo nominations. Next up will be John C. Wright’s short story “An Unimaginable Light.”

Meanwhile, I want to mention something that went by too fast for most people to catch—a rebuttal to last year’s analysis by Cecily Kane in Fireside Magazine that suggested anti-black racism was to blame for lower publication rates of black authors in SFF publications. The rebuttal, titled “Bias in Speculative Fiction,” was published at Medium. It criticized Kane’s statistical methodology and recommended a deeper study of structural bias against African American authors—but it was only online for a matter of hours. The authors (who prudently remained anonymous) were quickly labeled racists and withdrew the article after receiving threats. Luckily File 770 published a link to the Google cache file. Fireside also republished the article here.

A couple of main concerns of the authors were the use of the binomial distribution and US population figures in the Fireside statistical analysis. The binomial distribution predicts random events and the percent of African Americans in the US population says nothing about how many are writers. These issues should have stuck out to any critical readers, and I commented on them here at the time. Beyond what the rebuttal says about the statistical methods, submittal and publication are never random. That’s why magazine editors ask you to read the magazine before submitting. That way you don’t submit something that’s totally misaimed and waste everyone’s time (including your own).

Besides the methodology problems in Kane’s article, I have another concern now, which is that the review and rebuttal of Kane’s methodology was met with threats and bullying. There is a long tradition of rebuttal in the scientific community. It goes like this: Published scientific articles (such as those using statistics to suggest editing bias) are reviewed by readers, who are then encouraged to support progress by pointing out flaws in the science. This makes sure the community self-corrects. If rebuttals are shut down by threats and bullying, then how do we keep track of the true scientific facts? What if calling SFF editors racist is just pseudo-science?

Review of “Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a Nebula finalist published by Tor.com. It ended up with 13 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Miss Eleanor runs a home for wayward children that’s actually an effort to rescue those who have found doorways to other realities and then been forced back to the real world. Nancy has returned from the Halls of the Dead where she existed on pomegranate juice and learned stillness. At the home she meets the active Sumi, her roommate, but prefers the company of Kade, the wardrobe master; Christopher, who has a bone flute, and twins Jack and Jill, all of whom have been to dark places. Soon after Nancy arrives, Sumi is found dead, then another of the girls and one of the instructors. Can the children find who’s killing people before authorities close down the school?

This is a young adult type murder mystery with the added interest of the children pining for lost worlds. These are all children who are being ostracized because of their experiences, but they separate into cliques in the school, too, based on what kind of world they went to. This is presumably a metaphor for worldview and personality differences.

Pros: The story needed to be full novel length, I think; I would have kept reading. The murders are an interesting plot twist, and there was a really unexpected one at the end. Good character development and imagery. Lightly addresses gender and sexuality issues. Cons: Contains a couple of graphic descriptions of really horrific activity from the lost worlds and alludes to necrophilia. Is this suitable for young adults?

Four stars.

Review of Borderline by Mishell Baker

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This novel is urban fantasy, a Nebula finalist published by Saga. It ended up with 17 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Millicent Roper is a suicide survivor and double amputee suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and living in a mental health institute in Los Angeles. She is approached by Caryl, who offers her an interview for a job with the Arcadia Project and then mysteriously disappears. Intrigued by the offer, Millie checks out of the hospital and moves into one of the project’s residences. This is an old Victorian house peopled by other individuals with mental health issues, and a certain amount of friction ensues. It turns out the Arcadia Project monitors gateways to Arcadia used by the fey to enter the human realm, and something has gone wrong. As Caryl is preoccupied with indications, Millie moves into the gap, taking over an investigation into a missing fey. She contacts people in the film industry and eventually learns what plot is afoot. The group mounts an expedition to remedy the situation in the face of highly dangerous fey.

On the pro side, this is a solid supernatural mystery story with Millie playing the part of investigator. The characters are well-drawn, and it’s very readable and strongly plotted, leaning to adventure rather than sentiment. It’s written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style, and Millie is both cynical and snarky. This tone works well at the beginning of the novel, but less well as things get more serious and people start to die. Also, I didn’t quite believe that someone as down and out as Millie was at the beginning of the story would suddenly rise to the occasion of dealing with an investigation and wrap up of this scope. I’m under the impression that BPD is a serious disorder, and that a few months of therapy won’t make sufferers functional. Also on the pro side, I absolutely was not able to predict who would make it out of this adventure alive.

Three stars.

Review of “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe” by Kij Johnson

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This fantasy story is a Nebula finalist in the novella category. It was published by Tor.com, and ended up with 10 recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at Ulthar Women’s College. She is awakened in the middle of the night by a student who reports that Claire Jurat, a third year mathematics student, has run away with a dreamer. In her youth, Boe was a far-traveler, and she volunteers to go after Jurat to save them all from the gods’ wrath. She makes up a pack, receives funds from the college bursar and sets out. She just misses catching up with the couple, as they have already passed through the gate into the real world. Boe then sets off on a quest for a way to pass through. Assisted by a gug, finds a passage through the land of the ghouls that opens into a real world cemetery. The gug transforms to a Buick, and Boe finds she has knowledge of the world. An artifact she picked up on her travels turns out to be a cell phone. Can she find Jurat and convince her to save the dreamworld?

This is another novella that could have been a really short short story. It’s also an book full of well-written prose for people who just like reading. Not much happens—we travel along with Boe, and for a while, a little cat, meet people and see layered realities. It’s a very creative concept and we get a really good feel for what the dream world is like as it is revealed through the narrative. It has an emotionally satisfying ending, but I’m not sure it holds water. How can you change a world that’s generated by dreams in the real world? Minor social commentary.

Four stars for the quality of the prose.

Review of “A Taste of Honey” by Kai Ashante Wilson

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This Nebula finalist is a novella published by Tor.com. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Aqib is a royal cousin in the kingdom of Olorum who is talented with animals and works in the city menagerie. His family has recently lost status, and his father expects Aqib to marry well to increase the family fortunes. The boy is young and starting to attract the attention of marriage brokers, but he also attracts Lucrio, a Dalucan soldier stationed in the city for a peacekeeping mission. The two become lovers. Aqib later charms the highborn Femysade and the two wed. The marriage is harmonious and the couple produces a daughter, but Aqib keeps a long term relationship going with Lucrio, even though his brother tries to interfere. Femysade is talented in women’s work, a savant in math and science. She is tapped by the gods to go to their distant city and work, which leaves Aqib to raise their daughter alone. When his tour of duty ends, Lucrio has to go back to Daluz. He begs Aqib to go with him. Should he go or stay?

Well, this is different. I read somewhere that it’s supposed to be epic fantasy, but it’s actually science fiction and a love story. It’s described as a follow up to Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which presumably explains more about the universe where Aqib lives. It does have characteristics of fantasy, but it’s written in a science fictional framework–it’s just that to the non-technical people of the city, science is the work of the gods and therefore something distant, arcane and magical.

Pros: You have to hand it to Wilson for writing a straight-out love story, which is sort of out of fashion in SFF. Also, you have to give him credit for turning a few social conventions on their heads, making science and math women’s work, for example; for putting the beautiful Aqib on the marriage market, and also for avoiding the subject of race. The figures on the cover are black, presumably because Wilson is an African American writer, but actually he doesn’t give many clues to the racial identity of his characters. The writing also has a good flow which makes it easy, comfortable reading. Cons: The characters aren’t well developed and I didn’t engage with them very deeply. The narrative skips around in time and into alternate realities, so the story has very little in the way of plot or structure.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Liar” by John P. Murphy

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This Nebula finalist is a fantasy novella published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Greg lives in a small Massachusetts town and considers himself a liar. This means that he can lie to things like broken rakes and convince them they aren’t broken. Pastor Julie can’t get him on the phone, so she comes to the house to ask him to step in as caretaker of the local cemetery. He agrees, but goes to talk to Joe, the last caretaker, whose back has gone out. Joe tells him there’s an accidental death of a young person every November 5. Concerned, Greg checks the records and finds this is true. He ties this to the crash of a World War II plane and a possible ghost. Can he and Pastor Julie deal with it?

I saw this described somewhere as a fantasy written by Garrison Keeler. That pretty much outlines the style. It’s very laid back and written in mystery format as Greg investigates and tracks down the threat to local youths while striving to bake the perfect apple pie. Mysteries normally have about three major plot twists, and this builds up nicely with a major twist about mid way, but it’s missing the expected one at the end, so ends up fairly anticlimactic. Murphy achieves great characterization of the narrator—I was involved and getting really concerned about Greg. The other characters are well-drawn, too, and the author injects an element of sadness about Greg’s brother, who turns out to have been one of the victim.

Four stars.

Review of “The Orangery” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

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This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It ended up with 9 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

The Guardian lives within the Orangery, which she keeps and protects. She has lived there since her youth and sometimes yearns for more worldly experience. The Orangery is invaded by the randy Apollo, who is looking for the naiad Daphne in her guise as a laurel tree. The Guardian tries to protect Daphne and leads Apollo to another tree instead, which he transforms with a vial of magical syrup, revealing the naiad Dryope. Concerned about Daphne’s welfare, the Guardian goes to check on her, but Apollo follows and tries to cut down the laurel. The Guardian uses her last vial of syrup to turn him to a tree. She then leaves the Orangery in the care of Dryope and goes out to experience the world. Eventually, she feels the desire to return. Can she do it?

Hm. I think this is an absurdist/surrealist piece. The narrative jumps back and forth between the Guardian and Dryope, although at first this isn’t especially clear. Good flow, but the narrative is more about the background of the characters than plot. I’m not sure I like what it says. Apollo is a complex god, but here he’s used as a negative symbol of manhood. The Guardian seems something of a split personality, as the concept I had of her at the beginning doesn’t match the belligerent nature she exhibits later on. She must be a very powerful being to push Apollo around the way she does. Also, what kind of dumb idea was that to throw Dryope under the bus?

Three and a half stars.

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