Review of “Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Tor.com. This is a stand-alone story that falls into Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. Novels in this universe include Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, both from Solaris, and Revenant Gun, coming soon.

The young Shuos Jedao is promised a promotion to moth commander if he can successfully carry out a special ops mission to rescue a crew captured by the Gwa-an and held at Du Station. Incidentally, Jedao went to space academy with the crew leader, Shuos Meng. Jedeo joins a merchant group which provides a cover, but apparent pirates turn out to be Gwa-an military. He allows himself to be arrested in order to infiltrate the station. Can he rescue Meng and the crew? And what should he do about that lusty fellow Techet?

This is more humorous than serious, starting with the shipment of goose fat from his mom that Jedeo takes for a bomb at the beginning, and ending with a final joke about the use Techet finds for the goose fat. The plotting is decent if not dramatic, including a twist ending. Lee drops the reader right into the universe without any explanation, so this becomes an experience in creative world-building. Since I’ve read a couple of Lee’s novels set in the universe at this point, it’s no longer new to me, but fresh readers are likely to be entertained by the complexity of the culture and the gender roles. The running joke about the goose fat and other lubricants is also amusing.

Not so good points: The complexity and lack of explanation will be hurdles for some readers. Also, I understand this is supposed to be humorous, but the particulars of the execution really stretched my suspension of disbelief—it’s just not convincing and actually comes off a bit slap-stick. Plus, the story didn’t generate much in the way of drama or investigation of the human condition, either one.

Presumably it’s just for fun.

Three stars.

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Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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This is volume 2 of The Murderbot Diaries, begun in 2017 with the entertaining and award winning All Systems Red. It’s a novella published by Tor/MacMillian and runs 160 pages. This review may contain spoilers.

Murderbot has successfully escaped a quiet existence at PreservationAux and set out to find what its dark half-memories of a massacre are about. The transport it hitched a ride on arrives in port, and Murderbot transfers to another outbound transport, headed for the Ganaka mining pit where it thinks the massacre took place. This time, however, it has hit on a highly intelligent research vessel hired out for transport by its university. The two of them get off to a rough start, but ART (Asshole Research Transport) eventually comes around to the point of helping with Murderbot’s mission. Murderbot hires out as a security consultant to a group of young humans trying to get their research files back from a local company that confiscated them. This is intended for emigration purposes, but Murderbot gets involved in their problem. Meanwhile, news that it’s a rogue SecUnit has emerged. Can it keep the kids alive and find out about its past before the authorities catch up with it?

Good points: The interactions with ART are pretty much a necessity to deal with the realities here. ART challenges Murderbot’s stubborn, poorly thought out assumptions about how it can masquerade as a human and get to Ganaka Pit to find out what happened there. ART is a great character with some pretty transparent failings itself, and the two of them turn out to be a good team. Murderbot contracts for work itself and shows the same empathy and responsibility on the job that it showed for the last set of clients, which is the heart-warming part.

On the not so good side: It looks like the four installments of this will make up a full-length novel, but each installment is priced like a full-length novel. This installment feels short and incompletely developed (i.e. not worth the price), but hopefully the further installments will integrate it into the story better. I’m of the opinion that events and characters shouldn’t be introduced unless they’re going to contribute to the overall plot. In this case, it appears that Murderbot has rescued the kids and their files and neutralized all threats against them. However, this company had better be part of the Ganaka Pit problem, or else it’s just leading the reader on. As the novella ends, there’s no indication of this connection.

Three stars.

Review of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. As best I can figure, it’s steampunk, and it’s published by Saga. The sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club), was published in 2018.

After years of declining health, Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her alone and without any means of support. Among her papers, Mary finds payment of a monthly charity allowance that supports “Hyde.” Knowing there is still a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of her father’s associate Edward Hyde, Mary contacts detective Sherlock Holmes, who is working on a murder case. Mary follows up and finds she has a sister raised by the charity, Diana Hyde. As Holmes and Watson continue their investigation, it seems that Edward Hyde could be a prime suspect. Assisting with their case, Mary and Diana discover other women created by unscrupulous scientists in a secret society, including Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini. Can the women band together to help solve the mystery of who’s murdering girls in the streets of London?

This is a very fun and readable mashup of vintage mad scientist tales, including both historical and fictional characters from the 19th century, along with the wonderful addition of Holmes and Watson to handle the murder investigation. It also has the feel and flow of these old novels, without being too weighty. The text includes asides where the characters discuss the writing of the manuscript, which is supposedly handled by Catherine Moreau. There are also messages about sexism during this period, especially having to do with women’s fashion.

Not so good points: The story avoids the obvious questions like the ethics of scientific experiments on live subjects, and on humans especially. The messages about women’s fashion were interesting, and reinforced a couple of times, but Goss didn’t manage to tie this to current issues. Women reading it will think “oh, it’s great that we don’t have to wear all those old corsets and long skirts anymore,” but miss the pressures for children to wear sexy clothes and for adult women to look like film stars when the fashion industry is built on the backs of third world labor.

Four and a half stars. Not deep, but very creative and fun to read.

Review of Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s billed as “vintage alternate reality” and was published by Tor. Presumably this is going to be an ongoing series, as it’s described as book 1 in the Amberlough Dossier. Book 2, Armistice, is due on May 15, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Cyril DePaul is from a wealthy family and works as a spy for the government of Amberlough. Since a mission gone wrong, he’s been working a desk at headquarters in Amberlough City and enjoying a torrid affair with cabaret performer and smuggler Aristide Makricosta. Cyril’s boss pulls him off the desk to take over an emergency assignment, and his cover is blown before he even gets started. He’s forced to make a deal with fascists agents planning to take over the government. Returning home, he breaks off his affair with Aristide and takes up with Cordelia, a stripper at the cabaret, trying to carry off a plan. Is there any way to stop the fascists and preserve Amberlough City? Can Cyril save himself, Cordelia and his lover Aristide? Can he even protect himself?

This book feels like the 1930s or 40s, and it’s notable for its detail and sensuality. We get to feel the early spring breeze, smell cologne and sweat mingled at the club, walk in a carpet of cherry petals in the park and even catch the butcher-shop scent when the dead bodies start to pile up. The story gets increasingly more gripping as the fascist’s plot advances and the main characters end up fighting for life and liberty. They’re pretty much down and out by the end of the book, but it’s clear that Cordelia, at least, is going to be real trouble for the bad guys.

Not so good points: I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy either one in this book. Also, if it’s an alternate reality, I don’t see what it’s alternate to. It’s a great intrigue set in in imaginary place, but not really SFF at all. Also, I think the sensuality is a little overdone so that it interferes with readability and obscures thin world building. I ended up with a really clear idea of who was sleeping with whom and what cologne they use, but not much about foreign politics and how this impacts Cyril’s decisions. There’s a logical issue here that makes his actions seem really questionable.

Four and a half stars (but not SFF).

Review of All Systems Red, Martha Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen

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

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

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

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

Three stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments about it?

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