Review of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

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Rogue Protocol is a novella, the third in the Murderbot Diaries series, following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. It was released by Tor/McMillan in August 2018. Exit Strategy, the last installment of this series, is due in October 2018.

Finished with investigating its half-memories of a massacre at Ganaka mining pit, Murderbot hitches a ride on a passenger transport this time, planning to look into the activities of the GrayCris Corporation that attempted to assassinate Dr. Mensah’s team. Because it’s representing itself as a security consultant, it has to endure and mediate the conflicts the human passengers on this trip, but finally makes it to the transit station for Milu. It appears that GrayCris is illegally mining alien artifacts, and Milu is an abandoned terraforming operation that could easily have been used as a cover. The facility’s new owners have sent a team for assessment, and Murderbot catches a ride to the venue with their human security team. The security team has ulterior motives and the facility is hazardous, so problems quickly develop. Can Murderbot rescue the assessment team? Can it find evidence against GrayCris to help Dr. Mensah with her charges against the corporation? Stay tuned.

This installment of the story has many of the same good points as the original novella, including great characters and lots of strategy and action. This installment also makes more sense in the overall arc of the series than Artificial Condition did, as Murderbot has a specific objective related to Dr. Mensah and GrayCris.

It appears that Murderbot is getting more comfortable in the human world, and it’s starting to feel confined in small storage lockers. I’m not sure if this is evolution of the character or just that somehow it’s crossing over the line and becoming a little too human. The industrial machine quality of its personality is part of its charm, and I’ve not been thrilled with its emotional issues. Whatever, we seem to be working through those.

For a novella, this installment is still not worth the price, but almost (total cost of 4 e-book versions will be about USD$35). As a full-length novel, I’m thinking the series arc will be episodic, something like a TV mini-series that has to entertain weekly, but still make sense on a larger scale. This quality makes it hard to implement character development and world building, and I think both are suffering a bit from the structure of the work. It would be great if Wells could provide us a more in-depth adventure for the same characters.

Minor content editing issues. Four stars.

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Review of Shades of Magic (series) by V. E. Schwab

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Tor sent me a free ebook, so I went on to read the series. This is a fantasy tale consisting of three novels, A Darker Shade of Magic (2015), A Gathering of Shadows (2016) and a Conjuring of Light (2017). This review may include spoilers.

The City of London exists in four different realities, identified by color. Grey London is an ordinary place with scant magic; Red London is a place where magic is abundant; White London is ruled by tyrants and evil magic, and Black London is dead and sealed off, consumed by dark magic. Each living world has an Antari, a person born with blood magic that allows them to pass between worlds. These are Kell, fostered by the royals in Red London; Lila, a pickpocket with no idea what she really is in Grey London, and Holland, enslaved by the tyrants in White London. Kell is well treated, but feels unmet needs. As a result, he tends to compulsively collect artifacts from the different worlds which he keeps in a private room. He is targeted by a plot and accidentally carries dark magic into Red London. This sets off a struggle to contain the evil, and eventually he and Lila managed to send it, along with Holland, into Black London. They think they’re rid of the threat, but Holland negotiates with the dark magical presence in Black London and carries the evil back into Red. Can the residents of Red London find a way to save their world?

The best thing about this series is the concept and the world building. The series is very character driven, and Schwab expends large amounts of text in setting up the characters, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and in building relationships. This works very well in the first couple of volumes, while we’re becoming familiar with the setup and the characters and their ties to one another. For example, book 1 is mostly about Kell, how he works as a liaison and his relationship with the royals, especially his “brother” Prince Rhys. Book 2 is pretty much about Lila’s discovery of who she is and how she learns to work magic.

Book 3 is about 600 pages, dealing with the dark magic invasion, and here it appears that Schwab runs out of plot. There is a huge mid-story sag, running maybe 200-300 pages, where she fills up space by inventing past experiences for her characters and rehashing events for emotional effect. For characters with such huge responsibilities, various royals, plus Rhys, Kells and Lila, turn out to make very immature and poorly thought-out decisions. They also turn out to be the kind of people who repeatedly torture and abuse chained prisoners. Plus, there seems to be no rule of law here. I was not pleased.

I’ll have to split the rating. Books 1 & 2 get four stars because of the concept, but Book 3 gets a two. I almost quit half-way through it.

Review of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

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This is a fantasy novel released by Saga Press/Simon and Schuster in June 2018. An upcoming second novel in the Sixth World series, titled Storm of Locusts, is due for release April 23, 2019.

The Sixth World has dawned. Magical walls have arisen to enclose Dinétah, ancestral home of the Diné (Navajo), which protect it from the devastation of the Great Water outside. However, the Sixth World has brought the ancient powers back to life. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter, especially outfitted for combat by her clan powers and taken as apprentice by the immortal Neizghání, son of Changing Woman and the Sun. Now Maggie feels abandoned, as she hasn’t seen Neizghání in over a year. Locals desperate for help enlist her aid in killing a child-stealing monster, which sets her on the trail of whatever witch created it. When she consults her friend Tah, he recommends his grandson Kai Arviso to work as her partner. The two of them follow the witch’s trail through empty towns, to a tournament to the death and onto Black Mesa, where Maggie’s dreams warn her of failure and death. Can she find and overcome the witch behind the monsters? Can she deal with the evil inside herself?

So, Maggie is pretty tough. She is outfitted with an old pickup truck, a shotgun she carries in a holster, a good-sized Boker knife, obsidian and silver throwing blades, and a bandoleer of shells filled with obsidian and corn pollen. She has a dog pack, too, but they look to be pretty worthless at monster hunting. Kai is a sweetie with a silver tongue, and when that doesn’t work, he’s pretty good at healing and weather work. Because of Maggie’s slash-and-burn tactics, this starts off on a horrific note and continues with considerable violence. Kai does his best, but Maggie is resistant to healing. Still, she’s eventually forced to face her pathological issues and deal with at least a few of them.

This is reasonably character driven, but there’s more emphasis on the plot than on deep character development. I’d like to have had a bit more world building, more imagery related to the countryside, more ordinary people, and a feel for some of the everyday magic that must be present in the Sixth World. Given the clan powers Maggie and Kai have, this must be a fairly complex place.

On the pro side, Roanhorse is pretty good with symbolism, which makes Neizghání both Maggie’s idol and her nemesis. Kai is her opposite, his healing powers versus her thirst for blood. By the end, we’ve achieved at least a temporary balance.

Four stars.

Review of the Clocktaur War by T. Kingfisher

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This two book fantasy series by T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) includes The Clockwork Boys (2017) and The Wonder Engine (2018). This set appears to be self-published.Vernon appears as an award finalist fairly often for her shorter works, and generally the stories are good enough that I’ve been meaning to read more of her work, so here we are. This review likely includes spoilers.

The Dowager Queen is getting frantic, as an army of mechanical centaurs called Clockwork Boys is devastating her kingdom. Previous expeditions have been unsuccessful in dealing with the problem, so the queen commissions a squad of criminals to go after the creatures at their source. This includes Slate, a forger, Brenner, an assassin and her former lover, Sir Caliban, a demon-possessed knight, and the Learned Edmund, a scholar of the church. This motley crew (except Edmund) is outfitted with magical, flesh-eating tattoos and set off on a journey to perform the impossible in Anuket City. Can they live through actually riding horses? Can they stop the war? Destroy the Clockwork Boys?

The best thing about this series is the humor. There are plenty of snarky comments in general, especially from Brenner, as romantic interest starts to develop between Slate and Sir Caliban. I actually laughed out loud as Slate and Brenner resort to palliative drugs to alleviate the saddle weariness. The plot is character-driven, reasonably complex and moves along pretty smartly, as the crew deals with threats along the journey and picks up the gnole Grimehug. There’s enough imagery and world-building to make Anuket City, and especially the gray market, come alive. It all works out to a surprisingly reasonable conclusion, considering the apparent impossibility of the task.

On the not so great side, the humor eventually got to be a bit much, along with the suspension of disbelief. The tipping point for me was in book 2, and had to do with the gnoles, a race of creatures apparently employed in the city for menial labor. They’re treated as inferior, but Slate and Grimehug form an instant bond, maybe because she treats em with respect? Whatever, there’s enough here to indicate the gnoles have a complex society and should have an agenda of their own—this is an entirely different story. Meanwhile, I can’t see why this bunch of dustmops would be happy to serve Slate and her team just because they’re asked. Plus, they lighten the plot too much when it should be getting darker and more serious.

The world-building here seems to borrow a lot from Bujold’s Penric series, including the demon possession, the gods and the structure of the church. The artisan works in Anuket don’t quite fit in. Why aren’t they widely marketed? Why don’t we see them elsewhere? And finally, I wasn’t really surprised by the plot-twist involving Brenner—I just don’t know why the other characters didn’t see it.

Niggles notwithstanding, this was fairly enjoyable. Four stars for the humor.

Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

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