The Myth of Family versus Factory Farms in SFF Stories


Okay, one more rant in this series and then I’m done. There seems to be a myth out there about the pastoral family farm. Martha Wells uses this to describe Preservation’s economy, and I’m sure she’s right on the current zeitgeist. It’s more about that yearning to live a free life in a kind, caring, socialist economy that takes care of everybody (including animals) and provides the kind of safe food supply the US enjoyed in the pre-world war years.

This theme is a reflection of real life movements concerned about the welfare of animals crammed into crowded pens on factory farms. There are also concerns about disease in this system, and how quickly it can spread in crowded conditions. Activist groups are currently taking action on bills to limit factory farming in the US as a proposed method of “ protecting the food supply” from pandemics like coronavirus, apparently trying to make the association between these farms and the wet markets in China where animals are slaughtered onsite.

About 99% of US farm animals live on factory farms, and this isn’t unusual. Global studies suggest that about 90% of farm animals are raised on factory farms worldwide. So, if factory farms were banned, then a possible 99% of the meat supply would disappear off the US grocery store shelves.

Could we go to a vegetable or grain-based food supply instead? It’s definitely more efficient and cost-effective. Currently about 33% of corn produced in the US goes for animal feed, and about 40% goes to ethanol production. Only about 1.6% goes to bread and cereal products. US wheat looks slightly better: 36% percent is consumed domestically by humans, 50% is exported, and 10% is used for livestock feed, Couldn’t we add soy and turn these grains into burgers, instead?

The truth is that grain is also produced on factory farms. US grains are often genetically modified (GMO), leading to varieties that produce well, but may cause unknown health problems. Grains are also subject to disease, though generally fungus and not viruses like swine flu or coronavirus. Crops like grain, lentils and soybeans are often spraying with glyphosate (Roundup) to desiccate the green parts before harvesting. This after earlier spraying with insecticides to control pests. This means grain and vegetables from factory farms are often contaminated with chemicals that can cause cancer and affect hormones. You can see where the issue about factory farms is coming from.

So, is there any way to make the small family farm work again as the major US food supplier? The truth is that the small family farm has been in trouble for a long time. Most of them run in the red, and small farmers have to have second jobs that pay the taxes and actually support the family. Regardless, these small farms still produce about 27% of the US food supply. Can we get by on that? Probably not.

The issues are land available, profitability and population. About 44% of US land is currently available for agriculture, and many small family farms are gone, bought up for housing developments. Farming is also what’s called in economics a perfect competition, which means that profits often go down as production goes up. In 1900, the population of the US was about 76 million, and about 60% lived in rural areas and grew their own food. Today the population is about 273 million and only about 18% live in rural areas. That means it will be hard to create small family farms again, and to make them profitable. Next, would this system be able to produce enough food for the current US population? Not without major changes. So, trying to limit factory farms is a questionable goal without having a backup plan.

This also means that writers should take a second look at that idea of the bucolic economy supported by small family farms. It will only work if the population is small and most people provide their own food supply. This will not be a highly profitable economy. Small farmers have less capital to buy equipment and they lose the economy of scale advantage that large farms have in planting crops. That means everyone will need to work in the fields. Farming is not a leisure activity unless you have, maybe, a lot of bots that do the dirty work for you. That’s a big investment, too. Maybe illegal aliens instead? They work for low wages.

Economic Analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries


This won’t be anything scholarly, but I’ll try to hit the high points. I don’t mean to pick on Martha Wells, in particular. I love the Murderbot Diaries, and generally the economic system has been vague enough to get by. However, after a few installments, it’s now specific enough to get a grip on.

First, the Corporate Rim is a fairly standard instance of unregulated capitalism. It’s unclear where the government is that should be regulating it, or even if there is such a government—maybe there’s only a network of local administrations and a civil court system. If so, this is a case of imperialist might-makes-right, and it’s no wonder everybody has to hire muscle to carry out simple planetary surveys. The corporations indenture workers on labor contracts where they do get paid, but also have to pay the companies for board and health care, meaning they won’t have much at the end of the contract. In addition, the corporates buy and sell planets, kill off inconvenient competitors, ignore laws about interdicted areas, enslave human-machine hybrids, and are irresponsible with terraforming operations and seeding of colonists. Apparently there’s also a lot of damage from production like mining operations that the companies expect to abandon. This sounds very workable, but it’s also clear that it’s not the most optimal system.

Preservation is an independent freehold planet. The colonists were originally seeded on another planet where the terraforming was ineffective, so they were starving. They were rescued by a colony ship that stored them in the hold and brought them to Preservation. The colonists then rebuilt the ship into a wormhole port station. It’s unclear who operated the ship or how they got title to the planet, but the story suggests this was a rescue operation rather than a business deal–maybe someone looking for colonists to populate their private planet. According to Murderbot, the planet works on a barter system but the station works on hard currency cards in order to interface with systems that travelers come in from. Farms on the planet are operated by family groups, and everyone seems to be prosperous, though we have no information on how this works. (Does the government own the farms? Where are the farm workers? Do they use bots for the dirty work? Does everyone take a turn in the fields?) The government doesn’t seem to lack for funds. Commerce is low key and many things seem to be provided free of charge, including traveler lodging on the station. It appears that public servants volunteer their time, and are required to continue their normal occupations at the same time. This is why Mensah is the planetary leader and also working as lead on a planetary survey. Presumably she also has duties on the family farm, though we never see her working there, only on the survey and the station.

Okay, so I have some questions about how this system works. The main one is how family-operated farms and a barter system can generate enough wealth to build and maintain a wormhole station and operate a fleet of ships that is available for surveys and rescue missions. This sounds Bronze Age pastoral. The barter system means they will trade chickens for medical care, and it will take a lot of chickens and cows to buy a spaceship. Pin Lee is a lawyer and Ratthi is a biologist. Do they get paid with tomatoes and squash? Do they work on farms in addition to this? Does Preservation have manufacturing capabilities? How does that work on a barter system? They’ve bought an option on another planet and are considering further investment. What are they planning to do with it? Where did they get the funds? Plus Mensah has plenty of cash on hand to pay off the Company for bonds and to buy one of their SecUnits. Presumably this is government funds she’s using. Therefore Preservation must grow, mine or manufacture something of considerable trade value with the Corporation Rim in order to have this kind of budget. It can’t be generated from a farm and barter economy without a currency to store value. That just won’t work.

Why can’t governments just print money and give it to everybody?


Some of the discussion following recent reviews is about the current socialist versus capitalist theme of the novels, stories, etc., so I’m feeling like basic economics warrants a blog post. This a big subject, and I can’t cover it all in a short post, but I’ll supply some links and recommend further reading.

I suspect the prevalence of this theme is a reaction to decades-long trends in real life, where government policy in the US, for example, has favored wealthy capitalists and made accumulation of wealth harder for the poor and middle class. After WWII, many developed countries got rich from financing the rebuilding, which benefitted both the US capitalist system and the middle class, but by about 1960, this advantage started to bottom out. Then in the 1980s the Soviet Union collapsed. This was the major socialist challenge to capitalism in the post-war years. The collapse seemed to validate the US system of capitalism, and left the US as the major global economic power. This encouraged further expansion of capitalism though deregulation and world politics.

Production has moved from the US to Africa and Asia in search of less regulation and lower labor costs, and increasing automation in the US is also causing reduced opportunity for workers. Young middle-class workers are burdened by student loans, and good jobs are hard to come by. As a result, there’s been a movement toward socialism in the US, and calls for taxing the wealthy to provide everyone a basic income. This is not a new idea. The UK tried taxing the rich, and the wealthy just moved out of the UK. That means there will be problems with it in the US, too. See article on various countries’ experiences with socialism here.

So why does a government have to tax anybody? Why can’t a government just print more money and use it to provide everyone a basic income regardless of whether they have a job? The answer is that printing money without supporting it with increased economic activity devalues money and causes huge price inflation. You’re used to paying a certain amount for groceries, and if more people have money to buy groceries, then supplies drop and the price goes up. Eventually the supply will catch up and the market come back into balance, but the price of everything has gone up the same way, and now your money isn’t worth what it used to be worth. Also, if you’ve been saving for something (investment, college, old age), the value of savings drops during inflation, so you lose the results of your labor. See article on inflation here.

Economic systems are part of world building for speculative fiction, so let’s look at a few from history. The simplest is hunter/gatherer societies. Early humans did this, and as late as the 1800s it was still good for Native Americans that followed the buffalo herds, for example. However, this only works when there’s plenty of wild bounty to support everybody. When things get scarce, then you lose too much in wars trying to protect your interests. The next step for a society is agriculture and animal husbandry. This means you can accumulate wealth in the value of produce and herds, and this generally results in a barter system, where you can trade chickens for blacksmith work, for example. The problem is that this generates something like a feudal system, sharecropping and wars over ownership of the land. Plus, cattle herds are too bulky for saving in a treasury and they tend to die in a disaster. This means you need a safe medium of exchange, often gold, that’s easy to carry and store. That way you can set the value of a cow to one gold coin, or whatever, and everyone agrees to abide by this policy. Eventually gold gets too heavy to carry around, so nations go to paper money backed by gold, and then maybe just the strength of the economic activity. From there, the next step is to electronic transfer of funds by cards, phone apps, etc. Regardless, this remains a store of the value of your economic activity. It can’t be replaced with funds that aren’t backed by economic activity without disruptions in prices and the supply of goods. Exchange rates between countries reflect the value of their economic systems. See article on the history of money here.

Next, economic analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries.

Review of Network Effect by Martha Wells


This is the hugely hyped sequel to the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, a full-length novel at 346 pages. It was released by Tor/Macmillan on 5 May 2020 and immediately went to #3 on the NYT Bestseller list. It looks like another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries Book 6), is scheduled for release 27 April 2021. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot has contracted with Dr. Arada to provide security for her planetary marine survey. Just as they’re finishing up, they’re attacked by raiders, but MB holds them off and the research module takes off safely and docks with the orbiting baseship. They return to Preservation space, but as soon as they exit the wormhole, they’re attacked by another ship that tries to dock with the module. The baseship jettisons the module and escapes, and Arada, Overse, Ratthi and Thiago launch in the safepod, but MB and Dr. Mensah’s daughter Amena are caught by the attacking ship. Once within scanning distance, MB realizes the ship is ART (a.k.a. Perihelion), a university research vessel which helped it change its configuration and deal with things at Ganaka Pit in Artificial Condition. Clearly something bad has happened. ART is missing in action and the ship is being run by highly divergent humans who have installed their own operating system. MB wipes them out and destroys the new system, then reinstalls ART from a hidden file. The safepod has attached to the outside of the ship and gone through the wormhole with them, so the survey crew comes on board. Also onboard are two Barish-Estranza corporates, Ras and Eletra, who have crude implants that seem to allow external control. The ship has emerged into a system Eletra recognizes. Barish-Estranza has recently bought the planet and means to indenture the colonists, but the place is contaminated by alien remnants so two Barish-Estranza ships and ART, on a mission to liberate the colonists, were contaminated and taken over by an expanding hive mind. ART needed help, so it made up a plan to kidnap MB in Preservation space. Ras suddenly goes crazy and then dies, but they contact the Barish-Stranza main ship and transfer Eletra. Then they all look at the issue of how to find and rescue ART’s crew. Can it be done?

This has a lot of great points. It’s strongly plotted. The main characters are already established and it moves right along, revealing somewhat more about the characters, the corporate culture of the Rim and the adversarial free-hold planets. The counter play between ART and MB is entertaining. There are a couple of personal glimpses that are memorable and strongly dramatic. The final solution for defeating the hive mind is also creative. From all early reviews, this will be well received by fans.

On the not so positive side, this is probably the result of contracting to write a novel within a certain time limit and then getting too much advice on how to write it. I notice one early reviewer complained about pacing issues, but there are also problems with uneven characterization and questionable plot directions. Plus, this has ventured into subversive politics that some people won’t like (see Anders recent take on that). One cause of the problems is that there is a novella’s worth of material that’s missing from between Exit Strategy and this novel. Wells has folded some of it into interludes within the novel, but some of it is still just missing. The next problem is that this is stuffed too full of action when it should have been spread out over more novels/novellas. We start at the end of Arada’s survey, and MB is already upset and angry, something that’s unusual for it, which continues throughout. Thiago is either an idiot grand-stander, or else he and Arada have had a conflict about leadership through the whole survey mission. This is not clarified, and Thiago remains erratic and undefined. From this early emergency state, we continue right on into more emergencies, which ups the action/tension ante, but prevents the excellent story development and interpersonal conflicts that were characteristic of the novellas. There’s also very little additional character development for Arada and Overse, and hardly any at all for ART’s crew, clearly its major priority.

The wonderful, subtle, emerging quality about MB and ART is gone for this novel, and both characters act more human than not, just another one of the crew, haha. In the end, MB ends up failing dismally to rescue anybody, and has to be rescued itself. And then the politics: ART turns out to be only disguised as a research vessel. Its crew is traveling to planets controlled by corporate interests and trying to liberate the colonists by falsifying documents and then fighting in court about it. Regardless of abuses, falsifying documents is illegal, unethical, lowlife and pretty certain to provoke retaliation. This is not discussed. Plus, given the corporate responses we’ve seen, any organization that did this would need heavy security, heavy backing and really deep pockets. Also, if they’re not doing astronomical research, then why do they need an expensive AI like ART to run the ship? MB’s friends immediately support this activity, also questionable, as they should have learned their lesson from recent brushes with GrayCris and its ally Palisade. I’m also still wondering about the economic base of the freehold planets like Preservation. Where are they getting all this money to burn? Mensah shows up in a ship to rescue everybody, but what gives her the authority if she’s supposedly resigned as planetary leader? Is she somehow wealthy enough to pay for her own ship? And last, the corporates are fighting over this planet, even though it’s clearly contaminated by alien remnants. Isn’t it interdicted because of that? What gives?

I’m especially concerned about the issue here of promoting illegal and unethical actions to young readers as something their beloved characters support. Or even older readers, for that matter. It’s easy to slip into moral relativism and assume anything is okay as long as it’s done with good intentions. That’s really not so.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Home” by Martha Wells


Pre-orders of Wells’ novel Network Effect came with a bonus short story titled “Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory.” This was released 5 May 2020 (I guess) by Tor, and I don’t have a page count, but it runs pretty short. This review contains spoilers.

Preservation Planetary Leader Ayda Mensah is suffering from PTSD from her recent experiences: first in GrayCris’s effort to murder her survey crew, and then being kidnapped and held as a bargaining chip at their corporate headquarters. The resulting highly dangerous escape and chase by Palisade didn’t help much, either. As the story opens, Ayda is in a discussion with Ephriam, council member and past-planetary leader about the wisdom of bringing a “product of corporate surveillance capitalism and authoritarian enforcement to the seat of our government.” He means the SecUnit Murderbot, of course. The conversation goes nowhere, but predicts similar conversations with the rest of the council. Ayda heads back to the team quarters on the station, where the team is trying to pull together their final report on the survey and make recommendations about their claim on the planet in question. Pin-Lee reviews the billing from the company and MB, always eavesdropping, realizes that Mensah has not completed the recommended trauma therapy. She leaves the team area to get more supplies for the coffee bar and encounters a strange reporter. MB is there immediately and scares the man away, reports him to station security. Waiting for security to arrive, they have a moment for a private conversation. What does Murderbot want from her?

This is a direct extension of the story contained in the MB novellas, a brief, personal glimpse of what Mensah hides behind her confident exterior, along with a review of events and what the council thinks about a SecUnit coming into Preservation space. It includes Wells’ emphasis on drama and relationships, and also subtly reveals the discrimination constructs experience, even in Preservation space, which is normally very welcoming to outsiders. Also, we get the most description of what MB looks like yet. The diaries are first person, and it doesn’t look at itself much.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering why Preservation is still considering exercise of their option on the surveyed planet when there were clearly alien remnants there. These are considered dangerous and interdicted. Also, I’m wondering what Preservation’s economy is based on that they seem so open-handed. Not only did Mensah have plenty of cash on hand to pay off the bond company’s increasing demands for bond payments in the GrayCris debacle, but it looks like lots of things there are provided free, including fairly comfortable lodging for travelers in a station that must have limited space. Economics rules, and nothing is ever really free.

Interestingly, this seems to come direct from the author’s keyboard, unedited and unproofed. It’s full of errors, including mis-spelled names. Ha.

Four stars.

Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews


That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders


This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor/Titan on 12 February 2019 and runs 348 pages. This review contains spoilers.

January is a tidally locked planet, in a synchronous rotational orbit around its sun. That means it’s divided into dark and light, a permanently frozen darkness on one side and deadly, scalding sunshine on the other. Human colonists have built two main settlements in the twilight zone in between. Xiosphant is authoritarian and highly regimented, a system that curtails individual freedoms but provides for all. Argelo is a free-wheeling party city, ruled by competing aristocratic families, and if you’re not well-connected, you starve. Sophie is a working-class student with a scholarship to the prestigious Gymnasium in the city of Xiosphant, sleepmates with her upper-class friend Bianca. Mouth is possibly the last survivor of the nomad group Citizens, who normally works as a smuggler between the two cities, and sleepmates with co-worker Alyssa. Bianca is a student subversive, working toward the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Xiosphant. When she casually steals food chits, Sophie steps in to take the fall for her and is exiled from the city. She is rescued by the Gelet, mysterious native creatures that are often hunted for meat. She sneaks back into the city and hides out, finding a job in a coffee house. Bianca, thinking her dead, moves further into subversive activities, and her group starts planning a revolution. Conditions outside the cities are worsening, and after a tough run, Mouth and Alyssa are in Xiosphant. Hearing about a Citizens artifact stored in the palace, Mouth joins the revolution to get in, but escapes as the rebellion goes bad. Her group flees and takes Bianca and Sophie with them to Argelo. Bianca establishes herself quickly in Argelo, aligning with the head of a powerful family. Still intent on overthrowing the government of Xiosphant, she plans an invasion. Meanwhile, Sophie’s contacts with the Gelet show that Mouth’s adored Citizens accidently undermined the Gelet’s climate controls that make the Twilight Zone livable, and that both cities are likely doomed as a result. If Bianca can take over the Xiosphanti government, will anything change?

So, this needs a trigger warning for anyone who suffers from depression. It’s a pretty dark work, and it was a hard slog for me to get through it. The sun never shines, and the climate is going from bad to worse. Poor Sophie starts off naive and does her best. She tries to love Bianca, and to mediate between humans and Gelet, all without much success. The theme is clearly stated: the failure of grand ideas. The students start off thinking they will change things for the better, but all their efforts are wasted. Bianca leaves a trail of death and destruction behind her, and when she takes over the government, she becomes just what they’ve hated all these years. There’s also an interesting symbolism set up with the dark and light, and the population living in the gray area in between. The City in the Middle of the Night is the Gelet city, mostly underground, where Sophie is transformed to something half Gelet and half human.

On the less positive side, this has readability issues because of the depressive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a little messy. The theme is supported very clearly through both action and pronouncements, but there are also a lot of other things going on that are less clear. One issue is Mouth’s devotion to the Citizens, who all died and left her, and how this turns to ash when she finds out more about them. Another is the presence of the Gelet, who have to represent another way of doing things, but this remains unclear. Another issue is the folk living outside the cities, the smugglers and salvage operators, and the horrific creatures that kill them off in the wastelands. And last, Sophie is transforming to an alien. Maybe this is actually about midlife crisis?

Anders is a little older than I thought, actually Gen X instead of Millennial, and if we’re going to pick out important works as part of the awards process, then this is it, a warning to all those idealistic young kids who think they can change the world and not become corrupted themselves. There’s also a message here about the results of party city versus working hard.

Five stars.

Review of The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley


This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga/Angry Robot on 19 March 2019 and runs 369 pages. The novel is an expansion of the author’s short story “The Light Brigade” published by Lightspeed in November 2015. This novel is not appropriate for children, and it gets a trigger warning for adults, too, as it includes graphic descriptions of death in a war. This review contains spoilers.

After São Paulo is depopulated by the Blink, Dietz wants to be a hero. She signs up for the Corporate Corps to fight against the Communist Martians that everybody knows are responsible. She goes through basic training and then is deployed on missions with a technology that breaks combat grunts down into particles of light and reassembled them somewhere else. However, for some soldiers this light-speed travel causes time glitches. Dietz experiences the war in a jumble of out-of-sync missions, but keeps her mouth shut about it because of rumors people who talk about things like that disappear. After a while, the jumble of missions starts to assemble into a picture that causes Dietz to question the very basis of the war. Is there anything she can do about it?

First the literary allusions: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854 about the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here’s a short sample: “Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” Besides this, the transport technology strongly suggests Star Trek.

This novel is another in the recent trend to surrealist writing, and the accomplishment is fairly impressive. The main theme seems to be how easy it is to believe in lies and never think for yourself, and the story also functions as an anti-war screed. There is a definite plot, but it’s jumbled because of the time glitches and has to be assembled by the reader (you might want to take notes). Next, it seems Hurley has read Marx, who predicts that the end game of Capitalism is a small number of huge, wealthy and powerful corporations that ruthlessly fight to eliminate the competition. Hence the corporate wars in this novel. The Big Six are pitted against one another, and will commit any atrocity to win. While the rich corporates get richer, the poor are dying in the ruins. The Martian resistance is the Marxist revolution. We don’t get a clear picture of how these rebels carry on their business, but they are presented as living free lives and are labeled by the corporate leaders as dangerous Communists who threaten an important way of life.

On the less positive side, the author’s tool for creating impact includes constant graphic descriptions of violent death and dismemberment. Just be warned—I flinched at the first few incidents, but after a while I got desensitized and just plowed through the carnage. Next, the book makes an excellent case against the dangers of uncontrolled Capitalism, but suggesting that Communism is a simple, easy answer to the problems is another lie. Economists know that neither system is a panacea, and the best solution is a middle ground that stimulates enterprise while still providing opportunity for all. The important issue becomes how to provide that, especially for vulnerable members of the population. And one last annoyance: this is written in first person, and Dietz remains ungendered through the whole book until a friend calls her by her first name on page 351. Please, either let us know about gender early on or else let the protagonist remain ungendered. This device is clearly meant to be a gotcha, and it is not a twist ending.

Four stars.

Review of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

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This science fiction/fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by on 7 May 2019 and runs 492 pages. Interestingly, McGuire says she tried to sell this book on spec, but couldn’t explain it to anybody, so had to write it to make the whole thing clear. This review contains spoilers.

Roger and Dodger are twin geniuses adopted by parents who live on different coasts. Roger’s talent is language, and Dodger’s is math. The children are quantum entangled, so by an early age, they’ve found they can talk to each other inside their heads. It’s fun to have an imaginary friend that will talk back to you, but when Roger mentions Dodger, a scary woman comes to the house and threatens to take him away from his parents. This is Leigh Barrow, an evil assistant to evil alchemist James Reed, who is churning out genetically engineering pairs of children in an attempt to achieve the Doctrine of Ethos and the Impossible City through a guide laid out in the children’s book Over the Woodward Wall by his creator A. Deborah Baker. Terrified, Roger withdraws from his interactions with Dodger, but later he actually meets her at a chess tournament. They somehow both end up attending Berkeley, and soon start to realize they’re really brother and sister and a possibly dangerous combination. Meanwhile, Reed is getting impatient with their slow development and thinks he has achieved a more promising and tractable pair of children. In order for that pair to fully mature, he needs to get rid of Roger and Dodger. Can they defeat him and his evil minions? And then what?

First some background: Middlegame in chess is the part of the game in between the opening and the endgame. The Doctrine of Ethos, defined by Pythagoras, is about balance, especially between language and mathematics. At the time this book was published, Over the Woodward Wall did not exist, but it is now a novella scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020, by Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker. In Middlegame, McGuire describes Baker as “the greatest alchemist in North America, spreading her calm propaganda masked as fantasy.” It’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek glimpse of the author.

The best part of this story is the developing lifetime relationship between Roger, Dodger, their parents and friends. The characterizations, for the most part, are excellent, and we feel the children’s pain of separation and loneliness as bright children, especially Dodger, who is the math genius. The author lives in the San Francisco Bay area, so we get detailed descriptions of the setting where most of the story takes place. I’ve encountered the themes and devices used here elsewhere over the last couple of years, but this is definitely a creative synthesis of what’s out there.

On the less positive side, this could be considered a thriller, but there’s not that much to the plot, and at 492 pages, it moves very slowly. The first couple of hundred pages were gripping, but I was tired before we got to the end. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the timeline changes a couple of times, so you have to accept that events are not immutable. Luckily, the pivotal events seem to be fairly enduring. The novel is a tour-de-force as far as symbolic construction goes, but eventually I think it got stuffed a little too full of themes and ideas, where the asides start to distract from the main storyline. Reed, Barrow and the association of alchemists are only sketched in, when they might have been used to provide a stronger power struggle underlying the story. The pathway supposedly outlined in the children’s story remains totally vague, and the absurdist references to this eventually detract from the seriousness of the story. There’s a lot here, from advice to bright children, to finding balance, to maintaining your own ethics, to fighting evil, to understanding what to do with power. Although it has a science fictional framework, the inclusion of undefined alchemy and the powers granted by achieving the Doctrine of Ethos give it a strong fantasy feel.

Four and a half stars.

Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards, a stand-alone novel written in the universe of the Wayfarer series. It was published 3 September 2019 by Harper Voyager/Hodder & Stoughton and is billed as 176 pages, but it looks more like 136 in the ebook. There’s an extensive acknowledgement section and “exclusive content” at the end that is an interview Chambers conducted with her (mom) science consultant, Nikki Chambers, an astrobiology researcher and educator in Southern California, that makes up the rest of the advertised length.

It’s the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is part of the Lawki 6 team sent to explore exoplanets. The team has an assigned itinerary, and spends the time between arrivals in torpor storage where they are adaptively somatoformed so they can move freely on each particular world. Aecor has an ice crust with phosphorescent creatures that live under the ice. Mirabilis is a riot of life. Opera is terrible, fraught with storms that ultimately prevent them leaving the ship. Votum is tidally locked and at first appears deserted, but they find caves that hold secrets. Somewhere along the way Lawki 6 has stopped receiving bulletins from Earth. The team receives a final transmission from Lawki 5, damaged and attempting to land on Earth, but then nothing else. Is there any reason to continue their mission?

For anyone who’s wondering, this title is from a quote by UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim, 1977, recorded on the Voyager Golden Record as a message to any sentients who might intercept the interstellar probe.

I’d rate this story moderately high on the hardness scale because of the projections and the amount of real science that’s included, and as is usual with Chambers’ work, this contains a pretty big emotional wallop. The characters include two men and two women, with one of the men maybe trans, but this is only hinted and remains respectfully private and unclear. All characters are appealing and they respect each other, getting along with a minimum of conflict. The group is immersed in work they love and they experience the joy of discovery, but the mission turns dark when they start to suspect something bad has gone wrong on Earth. Besides this, Chambers engineers traumatic events in the mission that strongly affect the team members’ mental health.

On the less positive side, this probably needs a trigger warning because of its representation of murder, depression and attempted suicide. I would also have liked to read more on the ethics of killing aliens. The issue is given as cut and dried here, but it looks like a huge philosophical problem to me. The story also leaves us with an inconclusive ending. In the scenario provided, there’s no way around the team being stuck. It looks like a return to Earth might be a poor idea. They could extend their mission, but eventually they will run out of fuel. This raises the question of how they’re getting around. I’m just not sure the technology for a mission like this would be based on fuel that runs out. Shouldn’t the ship be at least nuclear powered?

Four stars.

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