Review of The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was released by Tor.com Publishing and is described as one of two stand-alone introductions to the fantasy Tensorate Series. The other book referenced is The Red Threads of Fortune.

Akeha is an extra child, an unexpected twin born to the Protector. Along with their twin, they are promised to the Grand Monastery, but as Mokoya develops a gift of prophesy, their mother wants them back, so Akeha comes, too. When their confirmation date arrives, Mokoya decides to become a woman and marry the new high priest of the Monastery, but Akeha decides to become a man. This further alienates him as his mother’s only son. He leaves the palace, and eventually finds himself aligned with the Machinist rebels fighting against the evils of the Protectorate. As events progress, the conflict begins to threaten Mokoya and her child. How can Akeha reconcile the demands of ideology with the family he loves?

There’s a clash here between the Monastery and the Protectorate on the one hand, and between the old order of magic and the new order of technology on the other. As this is only an introduction, there’s not much that happens in the way of development. We follow the children as they grow up together and then weather the rocky coming-of-age when they make the choice at confirmation that separates them. This process is not well explained. Apparently children in this world are born genderless, and their bodies are manipulated at confirmation to correspond to their choice. At least one character we meet did not undergo manipulation, but their sexual functioning isn’t addressed. As the novel ends, it feels like conflict is starting to heat up between the rebels and the Protectorate.

The plotting, prose, characterization and world-building here are adequate for a short novella. Even though the conflicts didn’t develop very far in this book, the tensions seem to be pretty well set up, and presumably the plot will thicken as we move into full length novels. The lack of a fully developed conflict is the biggest drawback to this story, as there’s not a lot at stake so far. People are just choosing up sides, which means there’s not much of a satisfying ending, either.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of All Systems Red, Martha Wells

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This novella is a finalist for both the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com Publishing, and is also winner of the 2018 Alex Award. Three more installments in the Murderbot Diaries are scheduled for publication later in 2018.

Murderbot is bored. Most of the contracts it works on as a SecUnit are dull and boring. Because it has hacked its own governor module, it is able to access media while on the job, which is what it’s hoping to do today. However, this doesn’t work out because a giant, carnivorous worm suddenly erupts out of the crater where the team is taking samples and snaps up Dr. Bharadwaj. This requires a response, and has the unwanted effect of exposing Murderbot’s skills in a crisis to this particular group of the company’s clients. As problems continue on the contract, the team also discovers the hacked governor module. This is a serious problem that would normally result in a SecUnit being recycled. Can Murderbot solve the mystery of who’s trying to kill its human clients? Can it escape being stripped for parts?

This is extremely well set up. Murderbot is an AI security unit with cloned human parts, emotional capabilities and gun ports built in. There’s some dark episode in its past that the company techs have tried to wipe from memory that leads it to call itself Murderbot. (Presumably we’ll hear more of this.) The story is strongly plotted and the characters are extremely well drawn, from Murderbot itself to the touchy-feely team of clients that wants to help it get in touch with its human side. The worm is a great hook, and the ending is appropriately satisfying. It’s written in an engaging first person, which gives us Murderbot’s intimate, personal viewpoint on events. The SecUnits units are genderless, and (refreshingly) everybody goes right ahead and calls it an “it.”

Besides these strong points as a story, the novella investigates the issue of AI/human relations and AI ownership as a form of slavery. Murderbot is dangerous because it has established autonomy through hacking its own governor module—meaning humans are no longer able to control its behavior through punitive means. All the unit needs is a little shove to turn its attention from escapist media to actually dealing with humans on their own terms. And besides that, it’s got built-in weapons.

On the not so positive side: Even though the story is very engaging, some of this feels derivative. The worm reminds me pretty strongly of Dune, and the question of AI slavery is already pretty well investigated. Murderbot also sounds like the standard military killer robot unit, fairly indestructible, only updated with the “what if” of self-determination. Also, once discovered as a rogue unit, I thought its responses were a little too human.

Regardless of these little issues, this is pretty much everything I look for in SFF stories. I’m going to go five stars on it. Highly recommended.

P.S. All Systems Red went on to win the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella. It was also nominated for the 2017 Philip K. Dick Award.

Review of Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by NobleFusion Press, and is the fourth novella-length installment in the adventures of the hypnotist Conroy and his loyal buffalo dog Reggie. This review may contain spoilers.

Conroy and Reggie travel to a casino hotel on Triton with Conroy’s old friend, the gambler LeftJohn Mocker. Conroy is interested in an auction of Stonefish liqueur and Mocker is expecting to investigate allegations of cheating as an agent for the Probability Guild. The suspected cheater turns out to be Angela Colson, a young girl whose life Conroy saved a few years back, who has won $10 million from the casino. The auction turns out to be not exactly what it seems, which Conroy suspects. Can he unravel the mysteries, handle the auction and get Angela some legitimate work?

Good points: This work is strongly plotted and leans to potty humor. The characters are adequately rounded, and I’d probably be able to visualize a buffalo dog (aka buffalito) a little better if I’d read previous installments of the series. There’s a certain psychological element, as Conroy puts together clues to reveal the behind-the-scenes antics and tries to influence events.

Not so good points: This falls on the science fictions side, but there’s not really much in the way of SF here. All these events could have happened on Earth instead of Triton with just some minor adjustments in the story. Angela’s powers seem fairly magical, and the good guys were easy to separate from the bad guys right at the beginning. Because the work is so obviously plot-driven, I was expecting a definite twist ending, but it didn’t happen. All we got was Conroy’s revelation of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and what he meant to do about them.

Three stars.

Review of Ghost (Paladin of Shadows 1) by John Ringo

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Recently author John Ringo was bullied out of a special guest spot at ConCarolinas 2018, apparently on the basis of his Ghost series. This is a troubling development, as many of his attackers cited the sexual fantasies in his work as a reason they didn’t feel “safe” with him at the con. This year an explicit sexual fantasy is a legitimate finalist on the Nebula ballot, and 50 Shades of Grey is on the average gal’s reading list, so complaints about sexual fantasies are a little hard to fathom. However, this turns out to be a more complex issue than I first thought. It sort of deserves a conversation.

There are three novellas in the book Ghost, all with the theme of white slavery. The first one looks like satire, the second is pretty straight-forward S&M erotica and the last looks to be another possible satire on prostitutes and human trafficking. I can see why this has tightened a lot of people up. It’s definitely transgressive fiction. It’s disturbing, and the social commentary is wrapped up with erotica so it’s hard to separate the two. Regardless, I think they need to be separated. Just because someone writes about “rape fantasies” doesn’t mean they’re dangerous. If they are, then we need to be questioning whether E. L. James should appear at cons, too.

Novella 1: Winter Born
Retired Navy SEAL Mike Harmon is going to college on the GI Bill. As he’s headed home from class, he sees a girl get kidnapped. Without thinking, he grabs onto the van and hitches a ride. He rescues two girls and finds enough information to catch a plane leaving the airport with a “shipment” of more girls. He stows away and ends up at a base in the Middle East where terrorists are planning to torture the girls to death and stream the video on the internet. Mike has managed to contact Special Ops, but it will be hours before a rescue mission can get there. The terrorists have already started their torture. Mike quotes “rough men stand ready” (incorrectly attributed) and goes to work. Can he get to the (naked) girls and organize them to hold off the terrorists until rescue arrives? Can he get a good lay out of it?

Novella 2: Thunder Island
Mike gets a monetary reward for his work on the rescue, and decides to contract out his services a la Travis McGee. He buys a nice boat to live on and takes up fishing. When spring break rolls around, he picks up two girls and takes them out on the boat. They later take him up on an offer to cruise to the Bahamas, and turn out to be interested in S&M sex. Because they’re going out of US waters, Mike has them call their parents for copies of their birth certificates and to get permission for the S&M part. They have a great time on the boat, but then Mike gets a call about a nuclear weapon in Bahamian waters. Can he deal with it?

Novella 3: On the Darkside
Mike is in Eastern Europe where he’s apparently on a tour of brothels. An older hooker offers to sell him a nuclear weapon. He expresses his interest, but finds the old warhead has already been sold. Mike reaches his contact in the US and sets out to find the weapon. Chartering a jet, he heads to Bosnia, where he hangs around the slave market (which the US government pretends not to see) until he finds the van the weapon was transported in. The weapon is gone, so Mike books a whore for that night and treats her poorly, but she’s okay with it after he gives her a big tip. Mike looks at opportunities and decides the weapon is most likely going to be deployed in Paris during the Pope’s scheduled visit. He decides to buy the girl and takes her with him to Paris. Can he stop the nuke from going off? Will the girl be able to find a sugar daddy?

First, I’m impressed with the quality of Ringo’s writing. The basic Ghost stories are entertaining and character-driven, and you can tell the author likes strong women characters. He’s created a very appealing main character. Plus, he’s created some pretty decent satire, even if he has made his points with a sledge hammer.

My main concern with these novellas is that Ringo has had his appealing main character think a lot of politically incorrect stuff and act illegally in at least three instances (aside from killing a bunch of terrorists), which isn’t something I think you want to put out there without discussing consequences. This is something that kids have trouble with already, and I can see this kind of issue could create the reaction Ringo got recently about guesting at ConCarolinas. The first illegal act was battery on an unconscious woman; the second was serving alcohol to minors, and the third was buying a slave. A couple of these were part of the set up for his social messages, but the alcohol is really questionable. Aside from that, these are highly sexualized stories.

The book was published in 2005, and I’m a little surprised that Baen let this go through, but you can never tell when a #MeToo movement is going to come along and create a backlash. Unfortunately, you can’t unpublish something so Ringo is stuck with it. I looked up an interview he did about the book, which called this a “controversial stance” and he said he thinks it represents the viewpoint of his core audience.

Hm. As a counter to political correctness, I can buy that, but is he encouraging his fans to do illegal stuff? Is he complaining about the basis for the laws? Will fans read this and think it’s a fun fantasy, or will some of them take it as a serious primer on how to behave towards other people? Most readers are going to miss the satire. Will what he’s written encourage sexual violence? Mass murder?

Comments about it?

Review of And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s alternate reality and was published by Uncanny Magazine. I expect the title refers to the classic mystery novel And Then There Were None by English writer Agatha Christie.

Sarah Pinsker gets an invitation to the Sarah Pinsker convention, where Sarahs from various alternate realities are offered a portal to attend. After discussing this with her partner, Sarah accepts. The convention turns out to be more mind-bending than narcissistic, held on an autonomous offshore island and featuring an interesting array of women who vary because of key decisions Sarah has made in her life. This particular Sarah finds herself lodged in an isolated wing with a great view of the dumpsters and a neighbor who is a drug-addicted disc jockey. The organizer of the conference quickly turns up dead, and our Sarah (who is an insurance investigator) is asked to play detective. Can she find the clues? Figure out motive and opportunity? Name the killer? Okay, so then what?

This is an awesome idea for a story. Just thinking about the situation is mind-bending. All those Sarahs together in one place look like a rainbow assortment of possibilities, but they still drink up the supply of her favorite beer in the hotel bar. When Sarah is investigating, looking for motive and opportunity, she’s trying to psych out herself. It’s a cool little detective story with a great twist, and the motive to the crime turns out to be a bit heart-wrenching, too, as we find out what’s really important to the infinite Sarah.

I don’t have much in the way of complaints about this one. It’s got a laid-back feel, great characters, a well-developed setting and enough imagery that I can make mental pictures of the various Sarahs and what they’re up to. If anything, I might complain about it being a bit too short and too mundane. This kind of great idea could have supported a full length novel and an expansive, earth-shaking plot.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

The SFF Community Bullies another Author: John Ringo

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I’m running a little behind on this, but I’ve caught up on things today, so I’ll devote a few minutes to pointing it out. The target this time is John Ringo, who started writing military SF in 1999 and has had several appearances on the New York Times bestseller list. He was scheduled as a special guest for ConCarolinas 2018, to be held starting June 1 in Charlotte, but has now withdrawn. As far as I can tell, Ringo has not been involved in the Sad/Rabid Puppies activist movement at all, so he was singled out apparently based on the community’s perceptions of his politics.

You’d think a writer with these credentials would be considered an asset for any SFF convention, but Ringo falls on the conservative side of the spectrum. According to Eric Flint, Ringo “more-or-less anchors the right wing in science fiction.”

Ringo was challenged as a guest with the usual charges against conservative writers, that he is racist, sexist, homophobic and misogynist. I’m not familiar with his work, so I checked around. Regardless of the author’s conservatism, his novels seem to feature diverse characters, and Flint even noted that in some cases Ringo stretches reality in his representation of powerful women fighters. I also found an opinion from the female ex-military R.G. Dole that the question is a matter of realism versus fantasy, and that Ringo represents things as they happen in the real world, rather than a fantasy world we’d like to believe in.

After the Con announced Ringo as special guest, the opposition quickly heated up with other guests and attendees threatening to boycott. On social media, Ringo’s work was described as “rape fantasy” and comments ran to the effect that female attendees would not feel safe with him there, presumably because of this Ghost series.

At first the Con staff tried to stand their ground, quoting their policy against harassment, but eventually the hostility got to the point where they encouraged Ringo to withdraw due concerns about his personal safety—which he then did. Jon Del Arroz immediately interpreted this as trend toward bans on conservative authors at SFF conventions.

So, what did this accomplish? It’s certainly not going to hurt John Ringo a lot. He’s already got a solid spot on a national Best Seller list and this is just more publicity for him. It seriously annoyed the staff at the Con, as John is a successful author and had by far the biggest fan base of the invited guests. As a result of the harassment, they were faced with hiring expensive security to ensure his safety and faced liability issues in case things got out of hand. Con attendees lost out on Ringo’s input on the panels, where he might have discussed his personal approach to writing and marketing. Basically, all I can see that this did was provide still another example of activist author bullying. In this case, the staff at the Con was bullied, too. How should the SFF community respond?

I think I need to buy and review few of Ringo’s books. I might attend the Con in support of the staff, too.

Review of Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s historical urban fantasy and was published by Tor.com Publishing.

The venue is San Francisco. Helen Young, an elderly woman who knows her end is near, takes a cab to one of her properties and removes a carefully preserved pastel from its hiding place in the basement. This is a hitherto unknown drawing from the pulp artist Haskel, and Young sells it to a dealer. We cut to 1940s San Francisco, where Young and the bisexual Loretta Haskel are friends. They go out to a queer club and Haskel discovers Emily, who sings under the stage name Spike. Emily ends up needing a place to stay for the night and Haskel offers her apartment. The two of them hit it off and start a tender romance, but then Haskel’s long-lost husband reappears, drunk, abusive and demanding money. Can Haskel and Emily find a way to be together? We return to the dealer at the end to find out the answer.

This is a sweet love story. Haskel and Emily end up sacrificing a lot to have the lives they want, mainly because of the discriminatory laws of the time period. These sound really strange today. For example, some of their lesbian friends were arrested for not wearing the required three items of women’s attire. The characters are well-rounded and the pre-WWII setting well developed. We end up with a compelling picture of the women’s lives and how they deal with living on the fringe.

On the negative side, this is a fairly mundane read, more historical than fantasy. The conflict is also fairly ordinary, where the two women end up threatened by the laws and the difficulties inherent in dealing with abusive ex-spouses. The magic seems forced and extraneous, even though it needs to be integral in order for the story to really work. The ending was also very easy to predict. Although I appreciated the characters, I didn’t really connect.

Three and a half stars.

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