Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

50 Comments

This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs

93 Comments

This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Uncanny Magazine, in the March-April 2018 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Adrianna’s best friend and housemate NPW is a taxidermist who picks up roadkill for subjects and works in the basement. Lately, he’s working on some kind of new technique that involves chanting and incense. Adrianna has no siblings and works for an estate sales firm that empties houses after someone dies. Her father is dead and her mother is in a nursing home with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Adrianna and NPW have been friends since they were kids, when NPW was a girl, and now NPW never hears from his parents except for regular prayer cards. NPW is moving up North to live with his girlfriend Robby, and Adrianna is sad. She has dreams that leave real artifacts behind, like blades of grass and wet clothes. When NPW leaves, the house seems filled with ghosts.

The most noticeable feature of this story is the imagery. The description, the sensory elements, and especially the narrative of the dreams, is exceptional. The characters are also strongly developed through both description and dialog, and the text is full of understated emotion related to Adrianna and NPW’s relationship and the hardship that is life and death. The dream artifacts are an evocative mystery that remains unexplained. The story ends with a final gift from NPW.

On the not so positive side, this is another story with a lot of decorative elements and no real plot. Adrianna and NPW talk and she dreams. NPW takes her to see her mom, and on the way back home they pick up another dead dog. They say good-bye and NPW leaves. That’s about it. The dead animals are sort of a gross-out, and adding horrific elements like this is starting to seem like a marketing gimmick to me. For anyone OCD, the loose ends here are also likely to be annoying. NPW’s new technique remains a compete mystery, and the dreams seem to have no function in the story, except to increase the artistic and fantasy feel of the narrative.

Regardless of the negatives, this is a highly artistic and well-developed short story, a glimpse into the life of a lonely girl with strange dreams who is losing her best friend. The artistic elements push up the rating.

Four and half stars.

Review of Someday by David Levithan

Leave a comment

This is young adult fantasy romance novel published by Knopf and runs 392 pages. It follows Every Day and Another Day, novels with the same characters, a prequel “Six Earlier Days” and the short story “Day 3196.” The novel Every Day was a New York Times Bestseller and nominated for a Lambda Award. It was recently made into a motion picture which is also available for rent/purchase. This review contains major spoilers.

This novel picks up where Every Day leaves off. The protagonist, who calls themself A, is a non-binary consciousness that wakes in a different body each day. They fall in love with the girl Rhiannon, and as a result, reveal too much of themself. This leads to wild accounts of demon possession and the arrival of the fundamentalist Reverend Poole, who turns out to be an evil version of A. Scared by all this, A goes on the run. A means to leave everything behind. They delete their email address and flee the Northeast for the Denver area. But A is starved for affection, and when they find a message to them on Rhiannon’s Facebook page, they are drawn back to her like a moth to a flame. Once in contact, they find the evil and dangerous Poole (also known as X) is holding their friends hostage as a way to get to A. What can they do?

I was really taken by Every Day, which develops a lot of suspense at the end very suddenly, so I’ve been waiting a while for this sequel. It continues a lot of the strong points of Every Day. It’s clear Levithan is interested in the worth of every individual, and a lot of this is about respecting others and treating them well, regardless of who they are. A’s existence is dependent on stealing bodies, but they maintain very strict rules about respecting their hosts and trying to do their best not to make anyone’s life worse during the one-day possession. This novel develops that theme further, including an equality march on Washington D.C. where a lot of the action takes place. Definitely Levithan’s strongest point in this series is how he presents the lives of A’s hosts, a one-day glimpse of each, with all their joys and problems.

On the not so positive side, this doesn’t develop much angst, conflict, drama or suspense. Early in the book A goes through some tough hosts, but this issue clears up once they are back in the Northeast and reunited with Rhiannon. It’s clear that A has to do something about X, and A does come through at the end, but there’s no buildup in the action line to this point. There is a suggestion in the text that A might go over to the dark side, but events don’t support this or provide any discussion of the morality involved. Instead, the book continues to concentrate on the “everybody’s okay” equality theme to the point that it’s intrusive. As a result, Levithan can’t resist making X a sympathetic character. Someone has apparently told Levithan A needs to use the pronoun “they,” too, which leads to the usual grammatical muddle. And last, all these people eventually started to sound the same, which means the author gave up characterization to use his own voice instead.

This isn’t the thriller sequel I’d hoped for, but it is still a valuable book for kids struggling to deal with difference.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory

Leave a comment

This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com in September 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

On a day in 1975, LT is ten years old. His mother wakes him to watch meteor showers, but something else happens, too, canisters falling from the sky with seeds that take root and sprout strange, invasive plants. In 1976, his mother has a new boyfriend and brings home a fern man in a pot. LT names it Slo Mo, and it soon gets too big so it has to go live with his dad. In 1978, a thistle cloud overtakes East Tennessee, blotting out the sunlight. Angered by an argument, LT’s dad tries to shove Slo Mo into the fireplace but it survives. In 1981, LT’s mom takes him to see the Dragon Tails, alien plants growing in Arizona. In 1986, drunk with his friends, LT wonders where the space bees are? How do the plants propagate without bees? In 1994, LT and his husband Doran adopt an Indonesian baby daughter they name Christina. Agriculture has failed in Indonesia because of the alien plants, and people are starving. In 2007, LT is reading to Christina and their son Carlos when his dad’s neighbor calls and tells him he needs to check on his dad. The house has been overtaken with vines, and inside Slo Mo is pressing against the roof. His dad has cancer, and LT and Doran make plans to move him into their house. At Thanksgiving in 2028, Christina announces that her research team has found a bacteria is evolving that will consume some of the alien plants. There is a potential for these bacteria to become part of the human gut flora, which would make the alien plants edible for people. In 2062, LT is ninety-seven. Doran is gone, but his family is still around him.

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm, slightly wry and very inclusive. At the risk of dissing East Tennessee, LT’s parents seem fairly typical. Mom has serial boyfriends and dad is God-fearing fundamentalist, but LT and Doran still manage to put together a nice, normal marriage and a great family. The dates in the story make up a Fibonacci series, like the spirals made by the Dragon Tails or a nautilus, and give us glimpses into LT’s life as the alien invasion takes root and grows. At the end of his life, LT is assured that his children will survive.

On the not so positive side, the story structure leaves us as mere observers skipping through the years. We can assume LT’s dad dies of his cancer, but there’s no info on what happens to Doran and Slo Mo. The plants apparently wreak havoc, but we don’t experience any of this, just a brief storm of thistles and vague reports of people starving in Indonesia. LT and Doran seem to have a comfortable life. Nobody really does anything that produces a solution to the problem except the lowly bacteria, mutating away in the background to take advantage of a new opportunity.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

8 Comments

This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.

Conservative vs. Liberal in the SFF Community

19 Comments

Following up on the last blog, why do liberals/progressives feel like they have to force change? Why does N.K. Jemisin, for example, feel like she has to stand up in front of the WorldCon audience and accuse the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minorities (i.e. racism)? Is she right? And once she’s been privately called “graceless” because of this, why do some members of the community feel they have to leap to her defense?

I’d like to suggest this is because liberals remain in a distinct minority within the community, and the fact that liberals remain a minority means they have to try harder to be heard. Minority status for liberals in the SFF community somewhat defies conventional wisdom. There’s been quite a split in the community in recent years along political lines. I’ve seen a ton of articles about how the community is now more progressive because it’s inclusive of minorities and women. Supposedly there has been a big swing in publishing toward works these members read and write. Meanwhile, the big seller this year was classed as hard SF, Andy Weir won the Dragon Award, and I met an engineer last night who asked me for a list of authors who wrote books he might like.

So, have the demographics actually changed that much? Since there aren’t a lot of studies about readership in the SFF community, I’ll have to look at general demographics. In the US Gallup says conservatives and moderates heavily outnumber liberals; about 42% of the population identify as conservative, 35% as moderate and 20% as liberal, with 3% other. If you assume the SFF community also breaks out this way, then liberals are actually a huge minority. Even if the community has a much bigger liberal faction than the general population, this still likely leaves this group well into minority status. The Daily Dot recently identified WorldCom as a conservative organization. Because of all noise about diversity in the Hugo Awards, this may seem a little surprising, but maybe it’s not, after all.

Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race

12 Comments

Since I discussed ethnicity and culture in the last Daredevil post, maybe this is a good time to go back to the Silverberg/Jemisin issue that played out after the events of WorldCon 2018. For anyone who’s been under a rock and missed the whole thing, Silverberg was displeased by Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her 3rd Best Novel win. In a discussion group he thought was private, he commented that he thought her conduct at the ceremony had been graceless and offensively political. He was immediately attacked as a sexist and racist. He made various attempts to defend himself against these charges, which were labeled just more evidence that he didn’t recognize his own shortcomings.

This is a fairly common occurrence these days, where someone makes a comment they think is a reasonable opinion, or even a private one in this case, and then is mercilessly attacked. I’ve commented before that the accuracy of the charges doesn’t really seem to be a question, only that it’s taken as an opportunity to attack, generally by the enforcers of a particular political agenda. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to say who’s right in the Silverberg/Jemisin fuss. What I want to look at is the cultural conflict that’s playing out behind this kind of conversation.

Because cultural norms and expectations are permanently in the process of negotiation, researchers consider them to be a contested zone. Culture is something that moves and changes, sometimes very quickly and sometimes hardly at all. It can be based on specific locale, with different norms just a few miles down the road, or it can be based on group membership, when a person’s expectations about how other people should behave is defined by social groupings within their culture. This means that when Silverberg, a past award winner, complained about Jemisin’s speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it meant she hadn’t met his expectations about how an award winner ought to behave. In particular, he seemed to be complaining about the political content of her speech.

Presumably if Jemisin had said something supportive of the SFF community’s history and values, praised its elders, etc., everything would have been just fine. However, she apparently considers herself a political activist and uses her speaking opportunities to attack institutions for their shortcomings, rather than saying things that show her support of the group—in this case she accused the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minority aspirations, i.e. racism. This tactic is meant to be provocative, as Jemisin is calling attention to the fact that the community doesn’t meet her standards. Her comments did trigger a conversation of sorts, but basically a disruptive one that generated hard feelings all around.

Actually, the reception for Jemisin’s speech seemed to be fairly warm at the time, and folks like Silverberg who were offended remained polite about it. It was only later when he thought he was in a private venue that he revealed his offense. So, were her comments appropriate? There’s where the question of culture and the “contested zone” comes in. It’s been fairly common in recent years for award winners to take an opportunity for political statements. See the Academy Awards, for example. However, there is always a backlash. This tactic is a matter of trying to force cultural change, rather than encouraging it. Why not have a conversation about solidarity instead?

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: