Review of Killing Gravity by Corey J. White

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This novella is The Voidwitch Saga Book #1. It’s science fiction (mostly), was released May 9, 2017, by Tor.com and runs 176 pages. The sequel Void Black Shadow was released March 27, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Mariam Xi, a.k.a. Mars, is a telekinetic voidwitch, genetically engineered as a weapon by a group called MEPHISTO. With the help of her sister Sera, she escaped their clutches and went on the run with a furry experiment called Seven. After an encounter with a bounty hunter, Mars is left helpless in a dying ship, but is rescued by kind strangers. Safely back to civilization, she tries to track down who sold her out, and finds that Sera, who she thought died, is still alive. MEPHISTO is back on her trail, and she has endangered the Nova crew who rescued her: Squid, Trix and Mookie. She picks up a new ship, sets out on a rescue mission. Can she use her abilities to make things right?

This is fairly creative space opera, with a definite dark side in the way MEPHISTO enslaves children to make weapons. The setting feels pretty gritty and hard-edged, with various AIs, augmented humans and transhumans as characters. The universe is well developed, assuming spaceflight and wormholes. The stakes are high, leading to huge space battles and consecutive migraines for Mars. For all her psychic abilities, she makes some pretty bad mistakes and by the end of the book, she’s only won a temporary victory and nothing is really settled, leading to the sequel, of course. As Mars’ only real friend, Seven provides the usual furry relief from unpleasant circumstances.

On the not so great side, this story doesn’t have much theme or depth. It seems action-driven and the characters aren’t as well developed as they could be. The crew of the Nova feel a bit like pawns the author uses to set up the battles, and Sera is supplied as the heart-breaker. I couldn’t get really attached to any of them. Also, if Mars is as powerful as she comes off in the final battle, how did that bounty hunter almost get the best of her?

Three stars.

Review of “Compulsory” by Martha Wells

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This is a great find. It’s a Murderbot short story published by Wired magazine in January 2019 as part of the The Future of Work series, which should make it eligible for the next awards cycle. I imagine this could also be a teaser for Wells upcoming new Murderbot novel, Network Effect, which is scheduled for release in May of 2020. Her website suggests there might be a few more short stories upcoming. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot is working a mining contract where it’s obvious all the humans hate each other. At the moment, 98% of MB’s attention is on episode #44 of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, while the remaining 2% is monitoring ambient audio to keep track of what the humans are doing. Elane, Sekai and Asa are humans arguing on the observation platform. Sekai accidently falls into the mining pit, and MB sends an alert to HubSystem. MB’s current job is: 1) to keep the workers from stealing company property, 2) to keep the workers from killing management and 3) to keep the workers from reducing productivity. Because rescuing the worker falls outside these parameters, HubSystem orders MB to stay at its duty station. MB estimates incoming safety bots will be too late to rescue Sekai, so it steps off the observation platform, kicks off the stabilizer wall into a lower gravity well and lands on the housing above Sekai. She reaches up and catches its hand just as the blade she landed on cycles and drops ore into the smelter. HubSystem tries to fry MB’s circuits for disobeying, but ha, that governor module died a long time ago. MB climbs out of the pit, carrying its rescued human, meanwhile hacking HubSystem to make it think it gave the orders for rescue. MB checks the management feed to make sure this has gone undetected and finds company management is puzzled but unsuspicious. More terrifying: Sekai has gotten a glimpse of the real Murderbot.

This is a compact wrap-up of the MB state of affairs, well presented in a mere 1000 words. MB narrates, and its personality and humor come through in the usual way. You get an idea of its physical capabilities and hacking ability—which is what makes it so dangerous without the governor module—and the way it wants to watch media shows and sort of enjoys actually being of use once in a while. That’s a great touch at the end, too, where it thinks Sekai can almost see through the armor to the real, complex person underneath.

On the not so positive side, why didn’t that observation platform have some pretty sturdy guardrails in place? Surely a lot of workers falling off the edge would clog the machinery below. And how did MB climb out of the pit? Is there an access ladder or not? Inquiring minds want to know. Actually, the only serious complaint I have about this is that it needs to be longer. It could easily be the intro to another novella.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Review of Avengers: Endgame

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It follows The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and features a large cast of superheroes, including Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Rudd as Antman, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Karen Gillian as Nebula and Josh Brolin as Thanos, etc., etc., etc., while Stan Lee makes his final cameo. This review contains spoilers.

After Thanos uses the Infinity Gauntlet to disintegrate half of all living things in the universe, Tony Stark and Nebula are rescued from space by Captain Marvel. The Avengers who are left organize and go after Thanos. Thor kills him, but this does nothing to reverse what Thanos has done. Back on Earth, everyone tries to get on with life, but they have to deal with the huge losses. Existence is hard and bitter, but they try to make new lives. Meanwhile, Scott Lang (a.k.a. Antman) has been stuck in the quantum realm since the catastrophe. Five years later he manages to find his way out. He takes stock of the situation and approaches Captain America and Black Widow with a plan to go back in time to reverse Thanos’ actions. Can the Avengers pull off a complex plan to capture the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get them? Can they create a new Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and bring back everything that was lost?

Good points: This movie has a little of everything: humor, pathos, love. It’s an ambitious script, and a lot of it goes by really fast. This is one possible explanation for the way it’s blown past USD$2B box office take in just a couple of weeks—people are going back to see it more than once because they missed a lot the first time around. It takes the main characters back in time for a brief visit with people they’ve lost, and in some cases, provides a do-over. For example, Gamora, who was sacrificed in Infinity War, gets a second chance. However, some other people apparently don’t and seem to be permanently dead. This may reflect the retirements of some of the bigger stars, including Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ), Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson. Rocket the Raccoon is, as usual, a huge star in this film. The script didn’t tie up everything, though, which suggests a direction for future films: Loki got away with the Tesseract at the end of Infinity War, which sequence is reviewed in this film, and Carol Danvers’ not-a-cat puked it up at the end of Captain Marvel. Does this mean more time travels lie in our heroes’ futures?

On the not so positive side, this was a three hour movie that hurried through everything, suggesting they might have broken it up into two or three films and made better use of their stars. One big issue with putting all these highly charismatic people together is in suppressing the charisma to make clear leads. In all the Avenger films, it’s clear that Iron Man and Captain America are expected to be the leads, with Black Widow as a strong second. This probably reflects their seniority, contracts and the amounts they’re being paid. However, there are clearly obstacles to this plan. The first is Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor). In some of the other films, he’s had very few lines, and in this one, the script makes him into a cartoon figure. Surprise, surprise—Hemsworth is good for it. He does comedy well, too. Maybe this is supposed to demonstrate the dangers of alcoholism, but regardless, the role he’s given is offensive and smacks of body shaming. Ruffalo, also a strong personality, is disguised with CGI. Other obstacles include Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Pratt as Star Lord, both of whom could steal the movie in a heartbeat. The directors were apparently expecting trouble here, though, so both are given very minimal appearances. In a three movie sequence, characters like these could have been given better roles and more screen time to develop subplots and make the film less jam-packed and hurried. Given the loose Tesseract and the fact that Thor went off with the Guardians at the end of this, we might expect they’ll get to follow up in future films, or maybe TV shows on Disney’s streaming service. Last, if RDJ, Evans and Johannson are all retiring, this will be a huge hit to the MCU films. Disney’s choices for replacement so far, like Brie Larson as Captain Marvel and Don Cheadle as War Machine, don’t really have the charisma and presence to carry the roles.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Film Review of Captain Marvel

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie is produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It’s written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, with Geneva Robertson-Dworet also contributing to the screenplay. Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. This review contains spoilers.

On the planet of Hala, Kree Starforce soldier Vers has recurring nightmares about an older woman. Her commander Yon-Rogg trains her to use her abilities while the AI Supreme Intelligence reminds her to keep her emotions in check. During a raid on the shapeshifting Skrull, Vers is captured, and after analysis, seems to have memories of the planet Earth. Vers escapes from the Skrull and crashes in Los Angeles, where she attracts the attention of the SHIELD organization, including Nick Fury and Agent Phil Coulson. The alien Shrull infiltrate SHIELD and order Fury to keep tabs on Vers. Following up on newly awakened memories, Vers finds she is really Carol Danvers, thought to have been killed years before in an experimental flight of a jet engine developed by scientist Wendy Lawson. Fury and Danvers find Lawson’s not-really-a-cat, who has apparently survived alone for years in her abandoned orbiting lab. The Shrull Talos reveals Lawson was actually Mar-Vell, a renegade Kree scientist, and that Danvers has developed amazing superpowers from the destruction of the test engine. Can she gain control of her powers and stop the war between the Kree and the Shrull before it destroys the Earth?

Good points: This is a complex script with several twists and unexpected developments. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson are old hands at this, and they carry off the alien contacts, the chase scenes and the Shrull infiltration of SHIELD with lots of class and wry humor. Danvers eventually sorts everything out and assumes her role as the hugely powerful savior of the universe. Plus, there’s an orange tabby non-cat. Not only is this a great addition to the cast, but it also pukes up a missing Tesseract in the post-credits scene, last seen in the hands of the Asgardian fire-and-mischief-god Loki Laufeyson. This device has been floating around through various of the MCU films, leaving us to wonder if it will feature in Avengers: Endgame and/or other films.

On the not so positive side, the script felt a little over-complex and convoluted. Like the shapeshifting Shrull, you couldn’t depend on anything being what it first seemed, which eventually turned a bit annoying. Danvers was represented as having god-like powers, a female version of superman but without the kryptonite issue; so why not stick around and handle things on Earth? Well, the universe calls. I’m suspicious—doesn’t she have any weaknesses? And last, like many of Disney’s recent choices for stars, Brie Larson doesn’t really have the presence and weight to carry this role.

Fairly entertaining and watchable. Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2018 Nebula Award Winners!

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Novel: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

Novelette: “The Only Harmless Great Thing,” Brooke Bolander

Short Story: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Screenplay by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Wrap Up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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I’ve already reviewed the remaining Hugo stories as part of the Nebula series, so I’ll move on to a discussion of what patterns emerge from looking at the finalists. As usual, I’m just looking at the four main fiction categories: short story, novelette, novella and novel. I’ve not read/seen most of the rest, at least not well enough to comment. These numbers are as best I can figure from online biographies.

First, the Hugo finalists feature “diversity” as the WorldCon members like to define it. That includes a huge slant to female and lesbian writers with only 2 cis men: Daryl Gregory and P. Djèlí Clark (who appears twice). Seventy-five percent of the finalists were female and nearly 38% of the finalists were LGBTQ, with the trans Yoon Ha Lee as the only male gay author and Brooke Bolander the single non-binary (appearing twice). Sex/gender breakdown of the finalists: 18 women (75%), 3 men (13%), 1 trans (4%), 2 non-binary (8%), 9 LGBTQ (37.5%).

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Looking at the racial/ethnic composition of the list, it leaned very heavily to white this year. Including Jewish writers, this contingent amounted to a whopping 71%, leaving only 29% of the list for other ethnic/racial groups. The voters made maximum use of the African American writers they did nominate, with P. Djèlí Clark appearing in the list twice and Rebecca Roanhorse representing both African and Native Americans (for this breakdown, I’ve listed her as Native America). As usual, Hispanics are very poorly represented at 0%, although I see Malka Older gets a nod in the Best Series nominations. This year’s total of 3 is a big drop in the number of Asians nominated, down from 8 last year (or 30%), but the African American and Native American groups remained flat. Racial/ethnic breakdown: 12 ordinary white (50%), 5 Jewish (21%), 3 Asian (12.5%), 3 African American (12.5%), 1 Native American (4%), 0 Hispanic.

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One pattern that repeats from last year is the dominance of Tor as the favored publisher. Nine of the finalists were published by Tor (37.5%), Uncanny magazine showed up well with three finalists (12.5%), and Fireside with two (8%). The big-name print magazines were totally frozen out of the Hugo this year; Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF didn’t feature among the finalists at all. An interesting new addition to the field was Zen Cho’s story from the B&N website, apparently getting into the game against Tor.

Another interesting pattern is the repetitive nature of the authors nominated. Ten of these same finalists appeared on the list last year (42%); five of the same names (20%) appeared in 2017, and four of the same names (17%) appeared in 2016, even with heavy interference from Vox Day and the Rabid Pups in both these years. This suggests the WorldCon voters have a very limited reading list, leaning to publications from Tor and from a small group of mostly female authors that they nominate year after year.

This year the stories leaned to fantasy, with 13 of the finalists falling into that category (54%), leaving 11 that could be classified as some type of science fiction. At least 3 of the science fiction stories also included heavily fantastical elements, and only Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition could be classified as anything remotely like hard SF. Twelve of these stories (50%) were also Nebula finalists.

Last, these stories tended to feature political messages, including a 3rd wave feminist slant. Five of the finalists (21%) went so far as to include a troubling quality of misandry, featuring men in stupid and/or sexist character roles. There were a high number of lesbian couples in the finalists’ stories, too, but I thought the number of non-binary characters was down a little from last year. Male gay characters remained poorly represented, featuring in about 8% of the stories.

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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This is a sort-of science fiction novel and a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga in April 2018 and runs about 304 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Has-been glam rocker Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the only musician left of the Absolute Zeros, are approached to perform in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a song contest that’s open to any alien race—with a little catch. Species that come in last at their first contest are pronounced non-sentient “meat” and eradicated from existence. Can Dess and Oort overcome self-doubt and competitor sabotage to rescue humankind from extermination?

This seems to be satirical absurdist humor. It rocks along at a reasonably fast pace with a lead in that gives us the history of the Sentience Wars, with the competition, like the Eurovision Contest, launched as a way to move forward in a more civilized fashion. The satirical part seems to be about racism. Or maybe the music business. Or maybe both? High points: Aliens decide against evaluating Earth’s house cats as a sentient species. Dess’ lost love Mira Wonderful Star asks him to marry her. The immigrant Oort works hard at being normal to escape police interest and eventually rescues humanity with a Christmas carol. Also on the positive side, Valente gets a lot of credit for keeping a narrative like this going for 300 plus pages.

On the not so positive side, this won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. It has minimal plot and most of it is complete nonsense about non-existent, not-especially-believable alien species doing weird things and making weird music. Because of the absurdist quality, I didn’t connect with the characters well. The ending was clearly foreshadowed, so didn’t surprise me.

Three and a half stars.

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