Review of The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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This book is science fiction, released by Tor Books on 16 October 2018. It’s Book #2 of the Interdependency Series and runs 320 pages. The Collapsing Empire, Book #1 of the series, was a finalist for a Hugo Award in 2018. This review contains spoilers.

This book picks up immediately where The Collapsing Empire leaves off. Flow physicist Marce Claremont is offering his father’s research for review, which predicts the collapse of the Flow streams in the very near future. This will mean that transportation and commerce along these pathways will soon also fail. The only habitable planet in the Empire is End, and the various space habitats will soon be isolated. There is already a civil war going on for control of End. Emperox Grayland II is having prophetic visions about the collapse, which is convincing to the public, but not the Church hierarchy or the nobility. Grayland is planning to put Nadashe Nohamapetan on trial for treason for attempted assassination of the emperox, and has assigned Kiva Lagos as caretaker of her estate. Meanwhile, the Wu family is plotting with the Countess Nohamapetan to take over the throne. Claremont’s data attracts a challenge from Flow physicist Hatide Roynold. The two of them put their work together and predict the Flow will reestablish after a period of instability, which has already reopened a path to the lost Dalasysla habitat. The Emporox sends an expedition there to check for survivors, and Claremont is surprised to find evidence the Flow was manipulated in the past to isolate the Empire. Meanwhile more streams are failing. Can Grayland II keep control of the Empire? How can she plan for the future?

Like The Collapsing Empire, this is a quick, entertaining read. Scalzi’s strong point is in the plotting and the politics, where he plays the different factions against one another in a cat and mouse game for power and influence. The dialog tends to the snappy and cynical, and the nobility comes off as self-absorbed and somewhat hedonistic. The power players are mostly women and Emperox Grayland II shows considerable growth in this installment, moving from an inexperienced girl to a woman controlling the reins of power.

On the not so great side, this is all brash, surface-level entertainment, which means there’s no depth in the characters. The snappy dialog really is great in producing interesting players, but then Scalzi treats them as expendable—don’t get attached to any of them. Kiva Lagos seems almost a caricature, and her sexual exploits seem slyly contrived as a hook for some readers. Also on the negative side, Scalzi hasn’t done much in the way of projection into the future. We meet a couple of advanced AIs, but most of the population is still using “computers” and “tablets” the same way we do now. Surely a space-going population like this would have better technology.

A fun read, but not much depth. Three and a half stars.

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So, who reads science fiction anyway?

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The last blog generated a discussion of whether science fiction can be called conservative at all because of its nature as speculative fiction. Following up online, I see opposing opinions about whether science fiction is inherently conservative or inherently liberal. There’s not nearly as much research on the demographics of the speculative fiction market as there should be, but in this post, I’ll try to have a look at some results.

First, what kind of people in general read science fiction? One writer-conducted market survey found that science fiction readers account for about 20% of the US population, are wealthier than the average, are about 57 percent male and tend to reduce their reading volume between the ages of 45-65. Also—no surprise—SF readers are people who read a lot. One study found that speculative fiction fans consistently consume high volumes of books, TV and films, which the authors considered “cognitively beneficial.” This study also found that SF as a genre has a strong effect on the way the public perceives and accepts science. Another study showed that science fiction in popular culture has a real effect on public attitudes. The authors suggest this is a literacy effect, where consuming scary media about “killer robots,” for example, affected opinions about development of autonomous weapons.

Other research shows that science fiction readers are more mature in their social relationships than readers of other genres. Fans who scored as knowledgeable about SF on the Genre Familiarity Test also scored higher on the Relationships Belief Inventory, while romance readers scored lower. In contrast, another study found that readers of romance and suspense/thrillers had higher interpersonal sensitivity/empathy scores than science-fiction/fantasy fans. Again, this isn’t really a surprise.

People read fiction for a variety of reasons, and escapism seems to be high on the list. Education is likely up there, too, where people are interested in broadening their horizons—science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, after all. However, most of us would still like to read texts that reaffirm our beliefs and values rather than something that challenges them. That leads us to the question of worldviews (i.e. politics). So how do worldviews affect reading habits?

Here’s an interesting study that found a preference for different disciplines in science reading material. For example, liberals tend to like theoretical disciplines including anthropology, biology, astronomy, physics and (surprise) engineering. On the other hand, conservatives tend to prefer applied disciplines including medicine, law and (surprise) climate change. Analyzing the results, the authors conclude that “scientific puzzles appeal more to the left, while problem-solving appeals more to the right.”

Another study conducted on Goodreads found that conservatives tend to prefer escapist, “low-brow” genre fiction and recent book-to-movie titles, and liberals tend to read more “high-brow” novels that win prizes. According to the authors, these results support the worst, polarizing stereotypes of “sophisticated” readers (liberals) versus “simple-minded” readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives). However, the authors also discovered a sizable number of non-partisan books that bridged the gap between liberals and conservatives. And, it turned out to be generally conservatives who were more engaged in producing this space for cultural compromise.

I didn’t find anything at all about the relative size of the conservative versus liberal audience, which suggests it’s a topic for original research. Anybody?

Identifying with Characters Different from You

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Some time back, after reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I wondered in the blog about how deeply readers from different ethnic groups and different cultures identify with the protagonists in stories. This seems like a timely subject, as there’s been a recent movement in the SFF community toward “own voices,” complaints about cultural appropriation and comments about how POC need to be the only ones to write about characters that reflect their own heritage. The scenario in the novel was that Ruff’s (culturally appropriated) Jim Crow era African American characters were represented as enjoying the works of classical SF writers now attacked as racist (Asimov and Bradbury). It’s uncertain whether Ruff meant this as irony, but he writes it dead-pan, as if his characters really are classic era SF geeks.

The novel is quite a mash-up of social taboos, and given the current climate, I’m really surprised there weren’t more complaints about the book being a) published and b) nominated for awards. However, it did raise the interesting question about identifying with characters from other races. I didn’t really get an answer from POC in the comments on my blog, so I went looking. Here’s an interesting perspective from Turkish-American Elif Batuman writing for the New Yorker.

As you might expect, Batuman describes no problems in using 1) suspension of disbelief and 2) imaginative projection to identify with alien characters. For example, to read period works, Batuman says, you have to BE the privileged, upper class male Englishman in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This means that for the purposes of reading, you have to shift your perspectives of race, gender, social class, religion and whatever other characteristics are present in order to feel what the character is feeling and worry about his or her conflicts. Along the way, you broaden your own horizons and learn about other worldviews, some of them historical, some fantastical, some science fictional, etc. This makes perfectly good sense, and I’m sure it’s been experienced by avid readers everywhere.

Where this breaks down, Batuman says, is when she runs across references to “Turks” in these old books that betray attitudes toward her own ethnic group. This event jars her out of her projection and back to the reality of evaluating “expired social values.” As I read this, mention of Turks is one problem that she snags on, and the other is the insulting quality of the references. Presumably the first really can’t be fixed in contemporary writing, but the second one can.

Everyone is pointing out that the SFF community readership is getting more diverse. So, is “own voices” the solution for problems like this? Will it remove the speed bumps to suspension of disbelief? Or (there’s always the Law of Unintended Consequences to consider) could “own voices” just reduce diversity by segregating the SFF readership into more strictly separate groups?

Cultural Appropriation and the Dilemma of Halloween Sales

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So, it’s been kind of entertaining to watch people try to sort through the costume issue this week. First, Megan Kelly lost her job at NBC for saying white kids should be able to dress up as black characters for Halloween. Then a lot of other people checked in, horrified at the idea of white kids dressing up as person-of-color characters. Of course, this would be the worst kind of cultural appropriation for “privileged” white kids—pretending to be some white colonialists’ black-face vision of POC like Moana, maybe, or characters from the Black Panther movie. It just not done in this enlightened age. But then the issue of costume sales came up. This is a $9 billion market in the US.

I was in a pretty good position to assess the costume market this year. I worked a Trunk or Treat event for a small church in a little town up near the Tennessee/Kentucky line. This is middle America, folks, trending heavily to the working class, with a few professional families mixed in. The most creative was a Transformer costume built out of cardboard. There was the usual collection of ghosts and zombies; one Jason Voorhees and a Freddie Kreuger. A couple of Wonder Women came by, a Flash, a Batman and one Superperson, However, a good third to a half of the costumes were Disney or Marvel characters—princesses for the girls and superheroes for the boys. Quick calculation: this works out to be maybe $4.5 billion in US sales.

So, what are Disney and Marvel supposed to do about the cultural appropriation dilemma? Given that $4.5 billion is on the line, this is a huge crisis.

The problem, of course, is that these companies have worked themselves into a corner through trying to provide “diversity” in their productions. A few years back, providing more diversity was considered progressive. There’s still a push for it—all productions need more POC, more POC as lead characters, more role models for POC children to identify with. But then, a recent shift in focus has identified this movement as cultural appropriation instead of diversity. When Disney makes a film featuring native Hawaiian characters, for example, the (privileged white) company is appropriating a minority culture, making millions in profit off the backs of the native Hawaiian characters. Should Disney be allowed to do this? Or should only native Hawaiians be allowed to make films about their own culture?

Worse, one of the most popular movies this year was the hugely successful Black Panther film. Only 13% of the US population is African American, so if only children of African heritage are allowed to wear these costumes, it puts a pretty strict limit on sales. So how did the companies react? By promoting sales to white children, of course. There were all kind of people out there giving them permission.

Doesn’t profit always trump cultural sensitivity?

Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

Wrap-up of the World Fantasy Finalists

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That concludes the reviews of the 2018 World Fantasy Finalists. See the full list of finalists here. The awards will be presented the first week of November at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there’s quite a bit of overlap between this and the Hugo and Nebula ballots, so I didn’t have to review that many works to finish up the list. There are actually two prior award winners here: “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Short Story, and “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17) won the Eugie Foster Award.

There’s pretty fair diversity in this list, not only among the authors, but also in the style and direction of the works–though not as much as in the Nebula ballot. I think. The short story category has a fairly serious diversity issue in that there were no men nominated at all. Best Novella leaned to men, and Best Novel was evenly split gender-wise. As is usual with recent SFF community awards, the nominees leaned strongly to women and Asians, with Hispanic/LatinX (typically at 0%) coming in way short of their US demographic. African Americans were maybe about right for their US demographic. Roanhorse complicates this issue, as she’s bi-racial, but I’ve included her only once in the Native American category below. The breakdown includes 43% POC and 57% white, which pretty much matches the demographics in the US. Here’s the breakdown:

Best Short Story  Best Novella

Best Novel  Overall

As usual, the ballot is completely dominated by American writers, but it does include minority, Greek and UK viewpoints. Of course, this group tends very strongly to the literary, and there’s not much of an adventure cast. There was a variety of publishers, but the big print magazines were shut out again.

Overall the subject matter looks somewhat more cheerful than my most recent reviews suggest. There is definitely a depressive and in some cases nihilist trend to the nominations, but a few works stand out with strong characters fighting for what they want and maybe, just sort of winning ground against the darkness. These brighter works include: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory and In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle. Chakraborty’s novel is dead serious, but the others are characterized by mild humor and social commentary that investigates the human condition fairly entertainingly.

Nothing here really caught my imagination, but the cliffhanger at the end of The City of Brass is going to worry me some. I’ll probably pick up The Kingdom of Copper when it comes out in January.

Best of luck to all the nominees!

Review of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

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Rogue Protocol is a novella, the third in the Murderbot Diaries series, following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. It was released by Tor/McMillan in August 2018. Exit Strategy, the last installment of this series, is due in October 2018.

Finished with investigating its half-memories of a massacre at Ganaka mining pit, Murderbot hitches a ride on a passenger transport this time, planning to look into the activities of the GrayCris Corporation that attempted to assassinate Dr. Mensah’s team. Because it’s representing itself as a security consultant, it has to endure and mediate the conflicts the human passengers on this trip, but finally makes it to the transit station for Milu. It appears that GrayCris is illegally mining alien artifacts, and Milu is an abandoned terraforming operation that could easily have been used as a cover. The facility’s new owners have sent a team for assessment, and Murderbot catches a ride to the venue with their human security team. The security team has ulterior motives and the facility is hazardous, so problems quickly develop. Can Murderbot rescue the assessment team? Can it find evidence against GrayCris to help Dr. Mensah with her charges against the corporation? Stay tuned.

This installment of the story has many of the same good points as the original novella, including great characters and lots of strategy and action. This installment also makes more sense in the overall arc of the series than Artificial Condition did, as Murderbot has a specific objective related to Dr. Mensah and GrayCris.

It appears that Murderbot is getting more comfortable in the human world, and it’s starting to feel confined in small storage lockers. I’m not sure if this is evolution of the character or just that somehow it’s crossing over the line and becoming a little too human. The industrial machine quality of its personality is part of its charm, and I’ve not been thrilled with its emotional issues. Whatever, we seem to be working through those.

For a novella, this installment is still not worth the price, but almost (total cost of 4 e-book versions will be about USD$35). As a full-length novel, I’m thinking the series arc will be episodic, something like a TV mini-series that has to entertain weekly, but still make sense on a larger scale. This quality makes it hard to implement character development and world building, and I think both are suffering a bit from the structure of the work. It would be great if Wells could provide us a more in-depth adventure for the same characters.

Minor content editing issues. Four stars.

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