Review of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is apparently Martine’s debut novel, and is listed as #1 in this series, suggesting we’ll see more on the same topic. It was published by Tor on 26 March 2019 and runs 472 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the multi-system Teixcalaani Empire. She has been dispatched in haste, and her imago implant holding the memories of her predecessor is hastily installed and out of date. When she arrives, she finds political unrest related to the Emperor’s impending death and a planned expansion war that will annex Lsel Station. Besides that, the previous ambassador Yskander Aghvan has apparently been assassinated, and Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass seem to be next on the list. With the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, Mahit threads her way through the politics, where it becomes clear Yskander made inappropriate deals with the Emperor Six Direction, plus political heavyweights in the succession fight, Minister Nineteen Adze, opposition leader Thirty Larkspur and General One Lightning. Mahit’s imago fails, apparently because of sabotage from back home, and she receives frightening messages that Lsel Station pilots have encountered alien spacecraft—apparently the leading edge of some other inimical space empire. Is there a way Mahit can sort through the mess, straighten out her imago and save Lsel Station from annexation?

This is an impressive space opera intrigue, strongly plotted, with highly complex world building and attractive, well-developed characters. There’s a solid political structure and workable economics underlying the empire versus the independent mining stations, and notable cultural differences between the practical Lsel Station and the Empire, which seems highly literate and given to layered, nuanced communications framed in poetic verse. There are shocks and speed bumps, of course, but Mahit manages to sort out the issues, and at the end of the book is headed back to Lsel Station, apparently to report to the Council and confront Councilors Darj Tarats and Aknel Amnardbat about the sabotaged imago. This signals where the next book might lead.

On the less positive side, I had an issue with the imago timeline. The implant Mahit is given on the Station is fifteen years out of date, but after it fails, she experiences flashes of memory that seem more recent. I thought maybe the implant had picked up some of the dead Yskander’s memories when Mahit viewed his preserved body, but given later events, this doesn’t seem likely. So, either I’ve misunderstood the timeline or else this is just unexplained. Next, I’m a bit surprised that Mahit has only a single liaison for staff—considering her position and the political unrest, it seems she ought to have a security force, at least. And last, Mahit develops a sexual interest in Three Seagrass, her liaison and junior staff member. In the age of #MeToo, this is romantic, but also definitely transgressive, and the narrative skims over it. Mahit doesn’t even seem to repent for overstepping her bounds.

This will likely seem slow and boring to action-adventure space opera fans, but it’s highly recommended for the poetic at heart.

Five stars.

Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes

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This sort of science fictional novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Saga on November 5, 2019, and runs 175 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The wajinru are the descendants of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard to drown during the slaving years. Their young were taken in and nurtured by whales, and these children evolved into water-breathing apex predators with scales, fish tails, intersex genitalia, massive jaws and sharp teeth. They live serene lives without the distractions of history. This burden is currently carried solely by the Historian. The time of Remembering is at hand, and the wajinru assemble and build an artificial womb for the ceremony. Yetu, the current Historian, invokes the trance and starts the Remembering, but she is weak and the memories are painful. She abandons the ceremony without finishing and flees, leaving the wajinru in limbo. Yetu ends up injured and exhausted in a tidal pool, where she is discovered by land dwellers. It has been many years since the wajinru destroyed the civilization on land with massive storms. Yetu is cautious, but establishes a close relationship with Oori, one of the land dwellers. Is there some way she can bring the land and the sea back together?

First, the credits: This novella was inspired by the Hugo Award-nominated song “The Deep” by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future.” Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are members of the rap ensemble.

The novella is another of the currently popular imaginative, absurdist narratives that have very little in the way of plot, characterization, or world building, but do coalesce into eventual meaning. In this case, the interesting point is that these undersea people have no memory for history, nor do they seem to want it. It’s painful after all. So they have arranged for one person to carry the burden, and only have a brief Remembering ceremony now and then, after which they’re rid of the memories again. Part of the question here is whether Yetu should permanently give them back their racial memories. I’ve found this issue of erasing history to rewrite the future in a couple of other recent cases from Millennial writers, suggesting it’s an emerging question of the current Zeitgeist.

On the not so positive side, there’s a lot of bad science here. How is it that mammals have evolved to breathe water and developed fish scales and fish tails? And how do babies born into the ocean live on whale milk? Plus, these people are carefree because they don’t remember anything. How will that translate to nuclear bombs, for example? Or the Holocaust? Sure, these things can cause depression and anxiety, but is it really safe to erase them?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This novella is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s novelette Precious Little Things. It was released by Tor.com in November 2019, and runs 192 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Coppelia lives in the Fountains Parish barrio of the city of Loretz, where she works as a puppeteer, con-artist and thief. She tries hard to stay clear of the Broadcaps police, who have been after her since she escaped from the orphanage. Coppelia has some unusual friends that help her in her work, tiny manikins originally created by the mage Arcantel. They don’t entirely trust her, but they have established a good working relationship and she helps them by using her small magical ability to carve bodies that they can animate to make more of their kind. Coppelia is getting along fairly well with this state of affairs, but then she captures the attention of the local crime lord, who sends her with a crew to rob the Mages’ palace. The plan goes wrong fairly quickly, and they encounter the powerful, life-sized, manikin Archmagister in the palace. Can Coppelis engineer some way escape with her life?

This is a quick, easy read, fairly upbeat and entertaining. The characterizations here are attractive and the manikins very strange and magical. Tchaikovsky sketches in a believable world with its hierarchies of power, and gives us the view from the bottom where Coppelia struggles along in the shadow of the crime lords and city mages, where wealth buys magic and magic buys wealth. The story is fairly whimsical, but it’s not all sugar and spice. People do get killed as the stakes get more desperate. There’s a slightly ironic touch in the dealings of the nobles.

On the not so positive side, this comes across like a children’s tale, while, as an adult, I would have preferred darker and more serious themes. Conflict is actually low, and Coppelia never has to make any really difficult choices. She is supposed to be struggling along through this world, driven by others with more power, but somehow the situation never feels really desperate. People seem to pick her up as a protégé, offering advantages, and with all the support she has, I never felt she was truly at risk. The power structure is sketched in, but this is just observations, and we don’t get into the fine points of how power can be employed for both good and evil purposes.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Ark” by Veronica Roth

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Roth is best known as the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy. The story runs 39 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

An asteroid named Finis is on the way to strike the Earth. Scientists have known this for a long time, so Earth has been evacuated. All that’s left are two Arks based at the northern and southern hemisphere seed banks, where crews of scientists are trying to catalog and preserve as many unique plant samples as possible before leaving. Samantha works at the north seed bank in Svalbard. As she works, she remembers her father. Nils Hagen has a greenhouse on the site where he cultivates orchids, and Samantha strikes up a relationship. Nils isn’t planning to evacuate, and eventually Samantha makes that same decision. But meanwhile, has she found a new species of orchid?

This is mostly experiential. As far as I can tell, it’s joy in the endless variety of plant life on earth, and how poor humans are at appreciating and recording it. There’s not much plot or world building in the story, and only Samantha seems well-defined as a character. There’s not really an action line, either, as it rambles from Samantha’s work to her memories of the past to her encounters with Hagen. I’m left with questions including: How did they manage the evacuation? Did they take all the animals with them? I gather I’m supposed to appreciate that Samantha has made a human connection in the last days of the Earth, and that the two of them share the joy of finding a new plant, but this just didn’t strike me. It feels more like a vignette than a story.

Two and a half stars.

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