Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.

Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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This book was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards. It’s a collection of novellas based on the different characters, but it can also be read as a novel. It’s published by HarperCollins and runs 382 pages.

The year is 1954, and African American war veteran Atticus Turner is traveling north to Chicago. His dad Montrose has disappeared somewhere in New England, and with his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find him. They end up at Samuel Braithwhite’s manor, where they learn interesting things about Atticus’ maternal ancestry and encounter Samuel’s son Caleb, who wants to control that legacy. Atticus and his friends soon find themselves dealing with ghosts, warlocks and various arcane events as they’re caught up in the machinations of an ancient cult. Can they save themselves and return to normal lives?

This is an entertaining read, as the characters are all resourceful and end up accomplishing what they need to do through the application of determination and common sense. Regardless of the Jim Crow setting, the characters feel contemporary, as if Ruff has set characters with modern sensibilities into the Lovecraft milieu.

I’ve read some other reviews that promote this book by saying racism is the real horror in the story. I didn’t really see that. If you’re unfamiliar with the facts of Jim Crow segregation and the kind of discrimination African Americans faced in the 1950s, then I suppose this could be a surprise. Presumably Ruff set his story in this period at least partly to display the racial issues, but actually he skims over it as fairly matter-of-fact. Everybody deals and nobody gets lynched.

What really stood out for me instead was the message that these black characters read and treasure the SFF classics of the day by Lovecraft, Burroughs, Bradbury, Asimov, etc., without any disconnect because of their race. Is that so? Currently these writers are all considered to be both racist and sexist because they reflect the attitudes of their era. So, do readers of all races normally transcend racism and sexism to place themselves in a romantic character and a romantic setting? Or is this just an irony that Ruff has inserted in his story? I’d like to hear from people with an opinion.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Roadsouls by Betsy James

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This novel was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and reads like young adult. It’s published by Aqueduct and runs 338 pages. The following may include spoilers.

Duuni is betrothed to a man who has previously abused her and already taken her mother to wife. She rebels and is sentenced to public beating. She escapes and is taken by the Roadsouls. Raim is a hunter and weaver blinded in an accident of overconfidence. In is anger, he refuses anyone’s help and runs away from his family. He is taken by the Roadsouls. The caravan travels from place to place, picking up abandoned children, and supports itself by performing at country fairs while Duuni and Raim face hazards along the road. Can they accept one another and find sanctuary?

Good points: This starts off to be really promising. I love stories about people who are down and out and overcome their disabilities through courage and determination, and this had that feel. The characters and the world are very well drawn with the countryside laid out around a central holy mountain. It’s settled by diverse people with different languages and beliefs, and there’s at least a suggestion of how the economy works. This includes what is likely a good description of a factory at the turn of the 20th century—a reminder of why we have unions and child labor laws. Many people are also going to like this because it’s about rape culture and finding safe spaces in a dangerous world.

Not so good points: It’s a long list. First, there’s not really any fantasy here. There’s no magic other than maybe an imaginary lion that Duuni thinks follows her around. Then it turns out to be about victims and predators. Although warned against it, Duuni and Raim repeatedly go off by themselves, act like victims and get captured and mistreated by bad people. The plot is forced and there are logical failings, especially toward the end, where Amu comes back to the factory where he has sold Raim as a laborer, allowing himself to be killed. He really didn’t need Raim for what he was planning. Miraculously, there’s no pursuit after Raim and Ratling escape and are rescued again by the Roadsouls. This feels anti-capitalist, as factories and “paidmen” are bad elements, while the sanctuaries are communes of artisans and wild children with not much visible means of support. I also gather this is about consent, as Duuni repeatedly makes love with Raim and then says no at the last minute. He waits patiently while she overcomes her fears because he loves her. At the end of the book, he’s still waiting. Everybody robs the dead here. There’s no respect on either side.

Two and a half stars because of the logical failings.

Review of Walls and Wonders by S. R. Algernon

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This is a collection of S.R. Algernon’s short stories, published by ReAnimus Press. The book has just been released on January 15, 2018, and runs 328 pages. The collection contains the short story “Asymmetrical Warfare,” nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016.

You get a lot of stories for your bucks here, as the collection includes 21 short stories, some previously published and some appearing here for the first time. I’m no expert on literary styles, but the best description I can come up with for Algernon’s style is “psychological.” The stories tend to investigate minds at work, whether human or no. There are people responding to the increasing surveillance of life or to controls on speech from the state. A man is haunted by a stillborn brother. A vampire looks for a cure. In a few cases, Algernon makes the leap to representing completely alien life forms, imagining possible creatures and their concerns. The brilliant “Asymmetrical Warfare” falls into this category, as does “Once More, onto the Beach” and “Symbiosis.”

I was impressed with the world building here, especially in the stories about alien cultures. The psychological angle is also impressive, as it tends to investigate problems and look for solutions. On the other hand, I didn’t get much in the way of strong imagery or description of the settings, and the characters tended to be a little flat, without much in the way of background or expression of their most intimate emotions, wants and needs. This meant the stories were a little shorter and had a little less to say than what they could have presented. Algernon’s fans will likely be happy to see these works collected.

Three and a half stars.

Are Conservatism and Progressivism inborn?

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Following up on my comments about Jon Del Arroz being discriminated against for his conservative politics (regardless that he’s a marginalized minority), here’s some interesting research about political views. Wait for it—these may be inborn. That means discrimination on the basis of political views may eventually be classified the same way as discriminating against individuals for other inborn traits like sexual orientation or skin color.

In recent years, researchers have started looking at what personality and emotional responses have to do with politics. In one study Kevin Smith et al. looked for emotional responses that they could use to identify conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, on the one hand, turned out to be more easily grossed out by pictures and tended to get emotional over people they disliked. Liberals, on the other hand, were less grossed out and tended to get more emotional over people they liked. Next, James Fowler et al. identified DRD4-7R, a variant of the gene that linked to novelty-seeking behavior as being linked to liberal views when combined with early socialization. Fowler made the point that political views can’t be tied to just one gene, but it does suggest how inborn personality can affect political viewpoints. Michele Vecchione et al. conducted a study in Italy that looked at people who voted conservative or liberal and classified them according to the “big five” personality traits. The results showed that people who rated high in the “openness” trait tended to vote liberal, while those so rated high in the “conscientiousness” trait tended to vote conservative. Another study of twins by John Alford et al. found that genetics clearly had a more significant influence on politics than socialization. Because people tend to marry spouses with similar political views, the researchers surmised, these traits tend to run very strongly in families.

Another interesting support for this viewpoint is the interpretation of personality tests. The DISC system, for example, breaks personalities down into four types: dominant, inspiring, supportive and cautious. People who lean to dominant and inspiring personality traits tend to be movers and shapers of change, while the supportive and cautious people, on the other hand, tend to be conservative, valuing security and stability. Besides this, the Myers Briggs test identifies 16 personality types, some of which actually include the descriptors “conservative” and “novelty seeking.” These personality types tend to be remarkably stable over time. They’re identifiable as early as kindergarten, and don’t change much after young-adulthood.

Enjoy classifying yourself through these links. As I recall, I tested out as a dominant and an INTJ.

Discrimination in the SFF community?

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A while back I made the comment that the major SFF awards seem to be discriminating against Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. In the past few years, it’s been easy to run down the list of nominees and see a good representation of African American, Asian and LGBTQ authors, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Pacific Islanders, etc. However, there’s been a consistent shortage of Hispanic/LatinX/Native American names in the nominations and in the Locus reviews and other reading lists that feed into the awards. This is in spite of the fact that Hispanics are the largest US minority, and combined with Native Americans, come in at about 1/3 of the population. Comments on the blog suggested that the issue was that the people who vote for the awards just don’t like the type of fiction those people write.

The lack of representation is no surprise. Despite the large numbers of Hispanics/Native Americans in the US population, they’re still highly marginalized and discriminated against in jobs, education, housing, immigration and lots of other areas. There’s really no shortage of accomplished writers within this group, so it makes you wonder what’s been going on in the publishing and awards systems to keep the Hispanic/LatinX/Native America authors so unrecognized. Now, we have a clear case of discrimination within the SFF community that suggests what might be going on.

Jon Del Arroz is Latino and, as such, falls clearly into the marginalized minority brown author-of-color category. Like many Hispanics, he apparently also falls on the moderate to conservative side of the political spectrum. His current publisher is Superversive Press, known for pulp type fiction, but also a publisher of fairly right leaning works.

Del Arroz posted a blog here about his experiences back in the spring. According to Del Arroz, he was initially promoted at local Bay area cons as a minority author, but found himself placed in panel discussions that were political and left-leaning, rather than about SFF or promoting books. Once his politics became known, says Del Arroz, then the discrimination started, based more on his ideas than his race.

In the late summer, Del Arroz was lumped with those “middle aged white dudes” after his nomination for the Dragon Awards. This was followed by a campaign in December 2017 to try to get the SFWA management to reject his application for membership. He’s also been banned from WorldCon.

So, are Hispanics/LatinX/Native Americans being excluded from the SFF community mainly because of their political views? Clearly Del Arroz thinks politics is currently trumping his marginalized minority status as a Latino. How does a socially conscious community reconcile this kind of behavior?

Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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I’m running a little late on reviewing this film, but feel the urge to comment regardless. Note: there may be lots of spoilers below. This was written and directed by Rian Johnson.

The story picks up just after events of the Force Awakens. The Republic is dead and the fascist First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke, is now on a mission to take control of the galaxy. The Resistance is struggling against this new threat. Rey searches out Luke Skywalker, hoping he’ll be able to answer her questions and teach her to be a Jedi. Meanwhile, the Resistance ships prepare to face the overwhelming forces of the First Order. Can Rey convince Luke to leave his secluded island and rejoin the fight? Can Princess Leia, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, Rose and the other Resistance fighters hold off the First Order and escape with their lives?

Well, this isn’t as bad as I expected from some of the reviews out there. There’s action and a reasonable (if thin) plot. It’s billed as humorous, but I didn’t really see that—the jokes were pretty feeble against the grand scheme of the production. What I mostly took away from this was clear messages to the traditional fans that change has come to the series.

Most of this comes from the conversations between Rey and Luke on his isolated island, where it becomes clear Luke has withdrawn from the Force and considers the Jedi “religion” outdated and empty. He advises her to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while he stubbornly refuses to help her. Eventually she gives it up and goes to try to turn Kylo Ren, whom she feels connected to in some way. That turns out to be a trap engineered by Supreme Leader Snoke. Lots of folks die at the end, and the Jedi history is wiped out.

So, that’s all fine. But what are they going to replace it with?

The original Star Wars set up is a classic archetype, the same kind of hero tale that’s passed down from generation to generation around a village campfire. There’s a hero, a sidekick, a princess, an aspiring youngster and a couple of wise old wizards, all fighting for light against the forces of dark. Lucas’ understanding of this, plus some really creative imagination, is what made the series so successful. But now they’re going to kill off the old characters, tear this structure down and give us something else.

I agree that the Resistance is pretty tired at this point, but I’m not seeing this spark they’re expecting will emerge to fire it all up again. We’re left in a universe of kids where both Ren and Rey are strong in the Force, but (without history and education) have no idea what they’re doing. There’s no discipline or consequences here—personal grandstanding is the big thing, and insubordination and mutiny among the Resistance fighters are laughed off by indulgent leaders as no big deal. Ren wants to rule the galaxy, and he tells Rey that she can come from nothing and rise to success. Still, it’s clear life isn’t working out for him. He’s weak and sniveling as a tool of the darkness, at this point totally unable to carry the role with any conviction. Actually, none of these characters are very strong. They’re just cogs in a feel-good commercial machine.

Three stars.

Review of Third Flatiron Best of 2017 (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 21)

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This is a collection of thirteen speculative fiction short stories edited by Juliana Rew, including her choice of the best stories from the Third Flatiron Anthologies published in 2017. These stories range from SF to fantasy to horror, and right now it looks it’s only offered as an ebook.

Third Flatiron Anthologies has proved to be a pretty reliable series for lightweight, entertaining fiction, mostly without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in short stories just lately. These offerings follow that standard, including everything from the quirky to the serious.

The stories include John Sunseri’s take on a different racetrack, James Beamon’s humorous tale of programmed troops, Konstantine Paradias’ projection of CRISPR in the kitchen, Brian Trent’s vision of Dorian Gray after the fall, Jean Graham’s spooky comeuppance for murder, Ville Nummenpaa’s contest for the most boring speaker, Wulf Moon’s Beast of the Month Club, Rati Mehrotra’s vision of the afterlife, Keyan Bowes’ integrated pre-school, Vaughan Stanger’s burdensome message, and Jill Hand’s projection of what your dog might say to you if it could talk. There were a couple of stand-outs. I especially liked J.L. Forrest’s witchy tale of rescue and Premee Mohamed’s vision of self-sacrifice.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson

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This novella was a finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was published for the first time in the author’s collection Whispered Echoes.

David’s friend Amy disappears from her property at Vassey Point during a violent storm. David helps her father close up her home in the old lighthouse, but six months later, he’s drawn to return. He meets Amy’s sister Karen wandering on the property, and the two of them strike up an acquaintance. They begin reading through Amy’s journals, finding creepy things. Can they solve the mystery of what happened to her?

Good points: This is a psychological horror, a ghost story that takes shape as the supernatural closes down slowly but surely on the two protagonists. It’s very smooth and offhand, so I gather Olson is very practiced at this. It includes a lot of information from David (as the narrator) that gives us local color and background on Amy, Karen and the history of the point that’s led to its haunting. Also, I can see the film in my head. This is very cinematic.

Not so good points: The narrator’s casual, matter-of-fact tone keeps the events here from becoming really scary. It’s very white bread and traditional. The techniques for generating horror are fairly standard—enclosed spaces, violent storms, ghostly presences, etc. I appreciate Olson’s technique and subtlety, but this just shivered my nerves a little. It didn’t really scare me.

Four stars.

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