Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

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This novel is science fiction/historical fantasy, published by Orbit in April of 2019, and runs 325 pages. It’s apparently successful enough to have triggered a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, upcoming in August 2020. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains major spoilers.

Orhan is a colonel in the corp of engineers, normally employed in building bridges and repairing aqueducts. He’s a former slave and a minority in the country, often at odds with authority, but adept at corruption—the sort of lying and cheating that is necessary to deal with the government supply lines. After a surprise attack in the city of Classis, he gets crosswise with authority figures, so takes his crew into the hinterlands to work on a bridge. When they return to the base at Colophon, Orhan finds the city under siege, the fleet blocked, the army decimated, the emperor non-functional, and himself the ranking officer in the city. Oops. Can he take control, put together a resistance from the panicked residents and design some quick engines for defense? And once he knows who’s behind the attack on the city, can he deal with the issues there?

On the positive side, this is wry and sharply entertaining. It’s written in first person and Orhan has a totally cynical view of government, petty tyrants and red tape. He’s also good at working all the angles; plus a solid engineer when it comes to building bridges and siege tech. He has a daughter that provides an emotional touch. The theme is also a standout. The subtext here is about racism and slavery, but the author has turned this backward from what we see in US society. Orhan is a milkface, brought by slavers into a country of dark-skinned bluebloods. He suffers discrimination and has a slight chip on his shoulder about the whole thing that affects his interactions. Regardless, he chooses to carry on with his responsibilities, trying hard to save his adopted city from a siege brought by what turns out to be another former slave out for revenge. This is subtle, but feels downright subversive to me in today’s political climate. Enough so that I looked up Orbit. It’s owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.

On the less positive side, there are a few minor issues. First, this has a slight mid-novel slump. It is highly entertaining during the set up, but once the defense organization within the city is up and running, there’s little for the residents to do except fight amongst themselves. This is messy and fails to produce any real furtherance of the story. The identity of Orhan’s daughter is revealed fairly late in the novel, which requires reinterpretation of events. And last, the dissonance in the slavery theme comes from Orhan’s parleys with his opponent, the former slave, but the light treatment here undermines the drama built up through the whole book to this point—this is the place where Orhan has to do some serious soul-searching about his race and position in society and for the author to make us wonder whether he’s going to support the society he lives in or tear it down. Still, the understatement is probably necessary because this is such a hot-button topic. In the era of cancel culture, somehow this novel has gone totally under the radar.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

More on Wealth and Power

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Most people who gain wealth and power have followed some kind of career path that gives them the skills to be successful in holding onto it. However, there’s an alternate path to wealth and power that involves behaviors we generally consider morally corrupt. It’s a scenario where the end always justifies the means, and favors are more important than qualifications and skill.

Looking again at the currently popular theme of killing people and taking over their wealth and power, it can be tricky to transfer these without documents, so what the authors are having the protagonists do is resort to fraud to carry it off. There’s a long tradition in fiction of romantic thieves who make their living through trickery and clever heists, but somehow this feels different. It’s as if the authors are advising readers to cut corners to get what they want. This signals a shift in moral standards.

Examples: In The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, the protagonist January kills her benefactor William Cornelius Locke and forges documents to take over his estate so she can live in comfort and have what she wants. In Network Effect by Martha Wells, ART’s crew is forging documents to dispute ownership of worlds and displace the corporate owners. Both these instances are presented as matter-of-fact and justified because of systemic bias, therefore the right thing to do. So, is moral corruption now the approved method to achieve our various causes?

Of course, corruption has always been there in human interactions. Moral corruption is the whole basis of organized crime, which uses violence, assault, murder, extortion, and fraud to build wealth and power. These tactics also have a bad tendency to creep into politics, where the stakes for wealth and power are similarly high. The US has laws against corruption, but various investigations and charges signal that it is fairly common and ongoing in politics. Somehow it is just there, strongly associated with people who achieve positions where they see the opportunities to capture or launder money and make deals to benefit their own personal interests.

So, is this one of the opportunities that women (or minorities) have been missing in their quest for wealth and power? Is that why authors are now pointing it out as a morally justified activity? It’s true that women have a complex association with corruption. Historically they have often attached to corrupt and powerful men to share in their spoils. Research shows that (at least in democracies) more women in business and politics tends to be associated with lower levels of corruption. Plus, women see the opportunities differently. For example, women tend to evaluate the risk of corrupt behaviors more carefully than men, and may take a bribe and not follow through on the deal. This makes them less trustworthy for anyone who is offering corruption, and turns out to mean that men are approached with more and better deals. However, when there are no penalties, everybody seems equally corrupt.

On the one hand, we’ve got a human tendency to corruption, and on the other an unspoken assumption that our society has rules against corruption, and that this is the moral high ground. The question is which we’re going to choose, and where we’re going to draw the line. Another consideration is how we justify morally corrupt behaviors to ourselves and whether this is actually exculpatory. Is it okay for someone to (allegedly) lie about sexual assault for monetary or political gain as Tara Reade and Christine Blasey Ford have been accused of doing? Is it okay for somebody to manufacture a racial hate crime like Jussie Smollett or racial profiling like Rev. Jerrod Moultrie? Is it okay for Sherita Dixon-Cole to lie that Officer Daniel Hubbard sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop because of the need for police reform? These charges are consonant with political causes, so does that justify lying to manufacture incidents? Is this now the best way to get the power for the changes we want? Or not?

Charlie Jane Anders checked in with her opinion earlier this year. In City in the Middle of the Night, all the grand causes fail because corruption degrades the new order the same as the old. Would choosing a different path to wealth and power make a difference in the results?

Review of “Home” by Martha Wells

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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

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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 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four stars.

Congrats to the 2020 Hugo Finalists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Semiprozine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Escape Pod
Fireside
FIYAH
Strange Horizons
Uncanny

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

Best Fancast

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

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

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

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

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

Shameless Self Promotion (Somewhat Delayed)

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

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

Afromyth2

Wrap Up of the 2019 Nebula Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two and a half stars.

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