Review of “Omphalos” by Ted Chiang

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This alternate reality novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was released in the author’s collection Exhalation, published 7 May 2019 by Knopf. This review contains spoilers.

Dr. Dorothea Morrell is an archaeologist working on a dig in Arisona. She is scheduled to give a public lecture in the Chicagou area on how tree rings and other artifacts date the creation, which goes well, but afterward she finds evidence of the illegal sale of museum relics. With only a post office box address to go on, she lays a trap for the thief and catches Wilhelmina McCullough, daughter of Nathan McCullough, director of the University of Alta California’s Museum of Natural Philosophy in Oakland. Wilhelmina explains that she is not really a thief, but she feels the relics not being displayed should be in the hands of the faithful, especially considering the huge crisis of faith that will be coming soon. Her father is in possession of evidence that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Can Dorothea’s own faith withstand this knowledge?

In case you’re wondering, omthalos is Greek for “navel,” and this story is a play on Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, by Philip Henry Gosse, published in 1857, where the author tries to reconcile the events of the Biblical Genesis with the evidence of science. In Dorothea’s alternate world, tree rings and ridges on clam shells stop at a certain point, the Atacama mummies have no navels and someone is carving the Yosemiti Cathedral into a cliff face in California. The date of the creation is clear. Faith is clearly a huge part of everyone’s existence, and the narrative mostly comes from Dorothea’s conversations with God. The number of stars is limited, and the center of the universe turns out to be approximately at 58 Eridani. This is a catastrophe on par with Copernicus’ observation that the Earth actually revolves around the sun and not the other way around, meaning that humans aren’t really the navel of creation. In this case, it looks like the inhabitants of 58 Eridani are, instead.

This story is satire, a gentle but fairly direct questioning of Western religion, and as such, I can imagine it might be offensive to some readers. I’m personally disappointed that the story didn’t give us any real glimpse of God’s chosen people out there at 58 Eridani. Dorathea wonders where that leaves us. Just an accident, I guess.

Four stars.

Review of “Away with the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine September-October, 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Suss hurts when she lives in human form. She is much more comfortable as a wolf, but she worries that she causes problems for her friend Yana and the other village folk. When she wakes as a girl this time, Yana tells her she has destroyed three chickens, two gardens, the apothecary, and possibly the widow Nan Gideon’s goat. Suss and Yana make the rounds to apologize and offer amends for the damage, but the goat is a problem. It’s clearly been killed by a canine, but Suss doesn’t remember doing the deed. Is she spending so much time as a wolf that she’s losing touch with her human self? Or is something else going on?

Contrary to the traditional, horrific werewolf story, this narrative leaves a warm feel because of how Suss is accepted, loved and supported by her friends in the village. It’s written in first person, giving us a good feel for the characters through description and interaction, but not that much of an image for the village. Suss had Yana follow up on the mystery of the dead goat, providing practical advice to Nan for defraying the cost by selling the meat and cleaning up the pen. Because the goat shakes Suss’ confidence in herself, she considers giving up her life as a wolf, but Yana offers her an alternative that works out well, where she can live at the edge of the wilderness and become the village’s protector instead.

On the less positive side, there’s not much plot here, and the question of what actually killed the goat isn’t hard to figure out. The story is fairly straight forward and depends heavily on the emotional content for its impact. Suss’ pain is represented as physical in the story, but symbolically this suggests that she’s actually retreating from the problems of functioning as a human being. It’s good she finally finds her niche.

Three stars.

Review of “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies on 21 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Eefa is a cripple and a healer and she has been a good husband, but now she wants to leave. She is married to the great warrior-woman Talaan the Lion and lives in the city of Xot, where the Emperor, Her Greatness the Mother of Vultures and Wolves, Ukhel’s Beloved, the Conqueror-King, has proclaimed the god Ukhel’s Era of Death. Talaan is pregnant with her fifth child, and now the Emperor wants her to fight in a war of conquest. Talaan has promised that this child will be unmarked by a promise scar and will not go off to war like her other children. Reluctantly, she agrees to the Emperor’s demands and rides to meet the foe. Her favorite son Tuvo, a sweet and sensitive page, is killed in the fighting. Talaan swears again her new daughter will not be scarred, but Eefa returns from praying at the temple to find the deed has been done. Talaan catches her packing to leave again. Will Eefa manage to escape the city this time?

On the positive side, this story features vivid imagery, strong characterization and impressive world-building. Although Eefa remains somewhat shadowy, Talaan comes across larger than life. This is a high fantasy tale where Talaan wrestles with her success as a warrior versus her love for her family. The Emperor, hooked on conquest, makes more and more demands of her hero, until the costs start to outweigh the benefits for The Lion and her First Husband. The fact that these women seem to be Amazons adds an interesting angle, and it’s impressive that Talaan agrees to go off to war while carrying a child. And then ready to take on the Emperor right after childbirth? Pretty tough.

On the less positive side, the usage of gender terms in this society is interesting, but the switch ends up being awkward. As the prime example, it’s not immediately obvious why Eefa is considered a husband and not a wife. Because she’s a cripple and engaged in a non-military profession? And Tuvo is a war-wife, while most husbands father children and, presumably, keep house? Okay, got it. But this did assemble fairly slowly throughout the narrative, meaning it set stumbling blocks that affected the flow of the story.

Four stars.

Review of “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

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This fantasy/alternate reality short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 23 October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nyma is ten years old and the chosen child. Her country is at war and Otto Han has just been elected president. The military has the seres missiles that will most certainly stop the war, but will also cause terrible destruction to the cities of the enemy. Nyma has the access codes for the missiles buried next to her heart, and the president has a ceremonial dagger that can be used to retrieve them. Nyma’s tutor Tej tells her to establish a relationship with Han, so she reads him poetry, and after a book of her poems is published, she becomes recognized nationally as a poet. However, their country is losing the war and pressure is mounting to use the missiles. Will Han sacrifice her to get the codes?

This is a highly creative mashup of atom bombs and access codes with human sacrifice. The Order, creators of the system, have put a human face on the codes, a child that the president has to kill with his own hands and that the people in the country know and love. Han has to complete this step before he can bring the missiles to bear on the enemy, a task that might otherwise be easy, callous and unfeeling. Stress builds, while we wonder if Han has the stomach to do it. As I was reading, I had visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people had no warning of the firestorm coming down on them.

On the less positive side, this is a little too pat. The characters carry out their roles and we get the message, but there’s really very little conflict other than the inevitability of the decision Han will have to make. Everybody remains obedient to the system, even though I expect military interests could come up with several ways to get around the issue of killing a child. We get to know Nyma through her poetry, but she remains mostly a cipher. The world and the situation also remain vague, and I ended up with very little in the way of solid images or details. Shouldn’t Nyma have had a security detail?

Three stars.

Review of “Blood Is another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 24 July 2019, and is available online and also for sale as an ebook. This review contains spoilers.

The Civil War is raging and word comes that Missus’ husband Albert is dead. The Missus’ fifteen-year-old slave girl Sully immediately drugs her, her two daughters, her mother and her sister with valerian and skullcap and slits their throats. This leaves Sully in charge of the farmstead. She buries the bodies and cleans up the mess, but finds no joy in her newfound freedom. Because the etherworld has been disturbed by the murders, Sully soon gives birth to the revenant Ziza, who has a much more assertive outlook on the future. The two discuss the question of papers to show ownership of the land, and agree this will be a problem. Ziza’s solution is to birth more revenants and take over the town where the deeds are registered. Can they make this work?

This is a powerful story that captures a bit of the flavor of the Old South in the framework of the Civil War. The murders are a variation on the popular recent theme of killing people and taking over their power, and the violence takes place early in the story, which gives it a strong initial impact. The style tends toward the symbolic and surreal, which reduces the space for imagery, characterization and world building, but Sully does come alive in a couple of flashes. Aside from the fantastical elements, the framework also suggests an alternate history of the US South, although there’s not quite enough development to carry this interpretation. Eventually Sully does manage a rebirth of sorts.

On the less positive side, a flavor of the South is all we get. This makes a powerful point in the beginning, but somehow Sully never steps up to take over her own life, even after her symbolic rebirth. She ends up with the revenant Ziza telling her what to do, and starts to read like a side character in her own story, only spawning avenging ghosts and not any kind of new Sully who will step up and achieve joy in her newfound freedom and opportunity. This leads to questions about the theme of the story. Is Solomon suggesting African Americans are too haunted by the ghosts of slavery to achieve anything positive? On the alternate history side, I’m also wondering why Sully waits until word of Albert’s death comes to carry out her revolt. His death may be only a metaphor for the South losing the war, of course, but this still leaves a question of why the slave Sully feels it is the (absent) man who somehow prevents her from murdering the women. Why is she afraid of him and not the women? About 1/3 of the population of the US South was enslaved during the Civil War years. Is Solomon wondering why the slaves didn’t rise in revolt as soon as the men left for the front?

Regardless of these (and a few other) questions, Solomon gets a lot of credit for grappling with the issues.

Four stars.

Molly Crosses the Rainbow Bridge

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Here’s another sad memorial post. We’ve lost another member of the family. Molly sat at my sister’s doorstep for 17 years, which made her 119 in dog years. She lost a foot to a mower in her youth and didn’t walk well, so she stayed close and concentrated on becoming the world’s best watchdog. She was dearly beloved and we miss her a lot.

Molly

More Shameless Self Promotion

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Here’s another story that I sold last fall that’s now out in an anthology. This is Wolfwinter from Deadman’s Tome, collected and edited by Jesse Dedman with cover art from Damascus Minceman. The collection is novella length at 88 pages, and includes nine stories of the weird and wonderful. My story leads off: “Possession” a gothic tale of werewolves and dark secrets.

Please check it out! Again, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads would be appreciated.

Wolf Winter

Congrats to the 2020 Hugo Finalists!

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As usual, there’s a pretty high correspondence between this list and the Nebulas. I’ve linked to the reviews I’ve already done, and I’ll review and link to the others in the fiction categories as soon as I can get organized. Okay really, pretty soon.

Best Novel
The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

Best Novelette
“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Omphalos”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
“Away with the Wolves”, Sarah Gailey (Uncanny 9-10/19)
“Emergency Skin”, N.K. Jemisin (Forward)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

Best Short Story
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/31/19)
“As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang (Tor.com 10/23/19)
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

Best Series
Winternight, Katherine Arden (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
The Expanse, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Luna, Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
InCryptid, Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Planetfall, Emma Newman (Ace; Gollancz)
The Wormwood Trilogy, Tade Thompson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Best Related Work
Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press)
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (Unbound)
“2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech”, Jeannette Ng (Dublin 2019 — An Irish Worldcon)
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O’Meara (Hanover Square)
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood, J. Michael Straczynski (Harper Voyager US)
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Best Graphic Story or Comic
Die, Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Stephanie Hans (Image)
The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 9: Okay, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson (Image Comics)
Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen, Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)
LaGuardia, Nnedi Okorafor, illustrated by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
Paper Girls, Volume 6, Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang & Matt Wilson (Image)
Mooncakes, Wendy Xu & Suzanne Walker (Oni Press; Lion Forge)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Avengers: Endgame
Captain Marvel
Good Omens
Russian Doll, Season One
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Us

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Doctor Who: “Resolution”
The Expanse: “Cibola Burn”
The Good Place: “The Answer”
The Mandalorian: “Redemption”
Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”
Watchmen: “This Extraordinary Being”

Best Editor, Short Form
Neil Clarke
Ellen Datlow
C.C. Finlay
Jonathan Strahan
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas
Sheila Williams

Best Editor, Long Form
Sheila Gilbert
Brit Hvide
Diana M. Pho
Devi Pillai
Miriam Weinberg
Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist
Tommy Arnold
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
John Picacio
Yuko Shimizu
Alyssa Winans

Best Semiprozine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Escape Pod
Fireside
FIYAH
Strange Horizons
Uncanny

Best Fanzine
The Book Smugglers
Galactic Journey
Journey Planet
nerds of a feather, flock together
Quick Sip Reviews
The Rec Center

Best Fancast

Be the Serpent
The Coode Street Podcast
Galactic Suburbia
Our Opinions Are Correct
Claire Rousseau’s YouTube channel
The Skiffy and Fanty Show

Best Fan Writer
Cora Buhlert
James Davis Nicoll
Alasdair Stuart
Bogi Takács
Paul Weimer
Adam Whitehead

Best Fan Artist
Iain Clark
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Elise Matthesen

Lodestar for Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo)
The Wicked King, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Hot Key)
Deeplight, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
Minor Mage, T. Kingfisher (Argyll)
Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney/Hyperion)
Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Astounding Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)
Sam Hawke
R.F. Kuang
Jenn Lyons
Nibedita Sen
Tasha Suri
Emily Tesh

Shameless Self Promotion (Somewhat Delayed)

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I need to take a moment here to squeeze in some self-promotion. I listed some story sales last fall, and the online sales appeared right away, but one of these got the full treatment as a high quality paperback/ebook anthology. This is Afromyth, Volume 2, collected by bestselling writer N.D. Jones, edited by J.S. Emuakpor, and published in March 2020 by Afrocentric Books. It’s available from booksellers online and at least by order from your favorite brick and mortar bookstore. My story is novelette length, about demons in modern Africa. It’s titled “The Investor.”

This looks like a great read. If you haven’t already, please support Afrocentric Books (and me!) through buying a copy. If you can do a review on your website or on Amazon or Goodreads, that would be great, too. Thanks to all!

Afromyth2

Wrap Up of the 2019 Nebula Reviews

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This was pretty much a whirlwind tour, as I had only read and reviewed a couple of the Nebula finalists this year before the list was announced. As usual, I’m now going to have a look at what patterns seem to emerge.

First, the diversity count. Here’s what I get from a quick search—apologies if I’ve missed or mischaracterized anybody. The gender count in the novella category adds up to 10 people and is slanted to male because of the two works with multiple authors. The other categories follow the recent awards pattern of leaning heavily to white, female, LGBTQ authors. In all, 24 works and 28 authors were nominated, with the approximate percentages as follows:
Gender: 8/28 (29%) men, 18/28 (64%) women, 2/28 (7%) non-binary.
Ethnicity: 4/28 (14%) Jewish, 1/28 (4%) Hispanic, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 3/28 (11%) African American, 5/28 (18%) Asian, 18/28 (64%) white.
Sexual orientation: 7/28 (25%) LGBTQ.

The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% this year because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. Whites at 64% were slightly above the US demographic of 61%; Asians at 18% were well above the 5.6% demographic in the US population, and Jewish at 14% were also well above 1.8-2.6% of the US population. All other ethnicities were underrepresented. The 25% representation of LGBTQ authors leaned heavily to women and remains well above the estimated US national demographic of 4.5%. This strong trend to LGBTQ and Jewish writers continues from previous years. Besides these forms of diversity, there was also a good representation of non-US authors in 2019, including several UK and Canadian residents. As far as main characters go, 19/24 (79%) of the works had a female protagonist, 4/24 (17%) had a male protagonist and 1/24 (4%) had a cat as the main character.Two of the male protagonists were gay, a good showing for a group that is so underrepresented in the authors.

It was a little hard to sort out genre this year because of the extremes in creativity and style. I count 12/24 (50%) works that made some attempt to be science fiction, 10/24 (42%) that look like pure fantasy and 2/24 (8%) that look to be a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. Although a fairly high percentage used SF settings, there was nothing here that really rates high on the SF hardness scale. Gannon and Chiang’s works are more traditional, as they include some discussion and hands-on tech action, but none of the rest rate more than a 1.0 on the hardness scale, meaning that they use a SF setting, but include little or no actual science. Space opera was clearly popular in the novel category, and absurdist and surreal works dominated the novella category, a style that seems to be rising in popularity.

A quick look for the dominant publishers shows Tor with 6/24 (25%) and Uncanny Magazine with 4/24 (17%) of the finalists. F&SF squeaked in a nomination for 2019, something that’s getting to be rare for the paperback print magazines.

As far as themes go, angry political messages seem to be down slightly this year. These were more common in the short story category than in the longer works. Political screeds include Wise, Sen and Harrow with the theme of women killing men and taking over their power. Greenblatt covered climate change and ecological disaster. Other themes seem to be more related to social change. In the novel category, both Pinsker and Gannon offered the dangers of addiction to virtual reality. Solomon and Osborne’s works considered the subject of erasing history. Several other works, taking the opposite position, presented real-world historical outrages like past treatment in asylums and colonial injustices. Love and revenge both seemed to be highly popular as topics.

After noticing last year that a high percentage of Nebula finalists were also officers or directors of the SFWA, I checked this statistic again. Sarah Pinsker, currently with two nominations, is a director-at-large of the SFWA, and Cat Rambo was the outgoing president in 2019. Several of these authors are perennials, notably Gannon and Pinsker, and Wise is also a finalist in two categories, but nominees also included several new voices this year.

As an extra bonus, see comments for a guess at who will win.

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