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

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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.

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Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

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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

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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

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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?

Cat Pictures

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I’m running behind on this week’s posts. Meanwhile, here a new picture of Spot for her fans.

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Review of “Old Souls” by Fonda Lee

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published in the anthology Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy and runs about 8800 words. This review contains spoilers.

Not only does Claire remember her past lives, but she can read the past lives of others when she touches them. She has just had her 20th birthday and knows she has never seen her 21st. She visits a fortune teller, hoping for help, but finds the woman is a fraud. Pearl, a woman in the waiting room, follows her out of the business. Pearl has no past lives because she is one of the Ageless. She is searching for the soul of a man she knew in a previous life and she wants Claire to help her find him. Claire agrees, and is surprised to find the man is Kegan, her boyfriend Ethan’s brother. She lets Pearl know, and then finds Pearl has lied to her. Can Claire deal with Pearl’s deception? Can she break the pattern that has always taken her life before age 21?

This story is plot driven and moves along fairly smartly to a fairly violent climax. The characters are adequate, but not really deep, regardless that we know something about their past lives. Pearl’s deception isn’t a complete surprise because of foreshadowing. As Pearl says, everybody sets up a pattern. The details about student life add depth to the plot and the ending is emotionally satisfying.

On the not so great side, I’m not sure that satisfaction is justified. Claire thinks she’s broken her pattern, but it’s still a while before her 21st birthday, and Pearl is still out there. Maybe she’ll go on thinking she’s accomplished her goals, or maybe not. Also, what kind of pattern will Kegan follow now? We’re led to believe he’s an innocent, but could Pearl have been right about him?

Patterns aren’t really world-shaking, but you have to give Fonda credit for saying something a little different.

Three and a half stars.

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 some of the heart-warming part. The rest of it is ART, a super-intelligent, empathetic creature trapped forever in the cold vacuum of space, who wants to ride along for a while and experience a taste of the human world.

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.

Minor editing issues. Four stars.

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