Review of Unfair Advantage by Edward Thomas

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This is a science fiction/humor novel published 29 January 2020 and runs 551 pages. It’s also billed as The Troubles of George McIntyre Book 1, suggesting this will be a series. There’s a teaser at the end of this novel for the next release, titled Angels, Inc. This review contains spoilers.

George is going camping with his buddies. He says ‘bye to his girlfriend Ginny and takes off. Meanwhile Detective Cook has found his fourth decomposing body, running with goo that corrodes the coroner’s table. The cause of this is an invisible alien probe in orbit around the Earth. It is struck by a piece of space junk, and the canister’s operating system fixes the holes, but the joggle has mixed some of its infectious vials. When the next batch strikes George and his buddies, the buddies become decomposing zombies, but George accidentally gets the “defense” vial. He collapses and wakes as a multitalented troll. Meanwhile NASA has suddenly noticed the orbiting probe, mainly because of the sudden disappearance of the space junk. The government alerts. Ginny isn’t really happy with the troll thing, and soon George finds he’s being tailed by Men in Black, but it’s not long before he’s planning what to do about the upcoming invasion. He projects that the aliens are AIs in a failing Dyson Sphere around their sun, looking for more resources. He sets up a company called Angels, Inc., and uses junk to manufacture robot warrior women as weapons. He picks up math/physics genius Jimmy, currently living with his mom and stocking shelves at the local supermarket. Now everything is set. Can they defeat the orbiting probe?

This is very readable with engaging characters. It’s an alien invasion, of course, but the author’s approach is entertaining and clearly in no way serious. It progresses from the opening to George’s solution to the upcoming invasion, an army of robust robot warrior women who quickly discover nookie. It turns into something of a PG romp, clearly meant to be engaging to a certain audience, but there are also a couple of serious themes buried in there. First is the power of uniting with other persons or nations to accomplish important goals, and second is the need for social support plus opportunity to unlock the unused potential many kids (and/or older persons) carry inside them. In addition, there are some excellent action sequences here when the AI warriors take on both the aliens and the government forces.

On the less positive side, I was really charmed with the opening, but not being the target audience, I was less interested in the ensuing fun and more interested in the early still mostly human George, the particulars of the invasion and the warrior AIs created to deal with it. I was especially intrigued with Brunhilde the Giant Tank. I can see a possibility for darker adventures starring Brunhilde, for example, that take a more introspective and angst-ridden bent. After all, it must be a little awkward to be what she is. Her little group of current friends is accepting of that, but most people won’t be. Also, I thought the defeat of the probe was just a little too easy. There could have been a lengthy cat and mouse game there.

Best enjoyed by teen aged young adults of the male persuasion.

Three and a half 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 The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga/Angry Robot on 19 March 2019 and runs 369 pages. The novel is an expansion of the author’s short story “The Light Brigade” published by Lightspeed in November 2015. This novel is not appropriate for children, and it gets a trigger warning for adults, too, as it includes graphic descriptions of death in a war. This review contains spoilers.

After São Paulo is depopulated by the Blink, Dietz wants to be a hero. She signs up for the Corporate Corps to fight against the Communist Martians that everybody knows are responsible. She goes through basic training and then is deployed on missions with a technology that breaks combat grunts down into particles of light and reassembled them somewhere else. However, for some soldiers this light-speed travel causes time glitches. Dietz experiences the war in a jumble of out-of-sync missions, but keeps her mouth shut about it because of rumors people who talk about things like that disappear. After a while, the jumble of missions starts to assemble into a picture that causes Dietz to question the very basis of the war. Is there anything she can do about it?

First the literary allusions: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854 about the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here’s a short sample: “Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” Besides this, the transport technology strongly suggests Star Trek.

This novel is another in the recent trend to surrealist writing, and the accomplishment is fairly impressive. The main theme seems to be how easy it is to believe in lies and never think for yourself, and the story also functions as an anti-war screed. There is a definite plot, but it’s jumbled because of the time glitches and has to be assembled by the reader (you might want to take notes). Next, it seems Hurley has read Marx, who predicts that the end game of Capitalism is a small number of huge, wealthy and powerful corporations that ruthlessly fight to eliminate the competition. Hence the corporate wars in this novel. The Big Six are pitted against one another, and will commit any atrocity to win. While the rich corporates get richer, the poor are dying in the ruins. The Martian resistance is the Marxist revolution. We don’t get a clear picture of how these rebels carry on their business, but they are presented as living free lives and are labeled by the corporate leaders as dangerous Communists who threaten an important way of life.

On the less positive side, the author’s tool for creating impact includes constant graphic descriptions of violent death and dismemberment. Just be warned—I flinched at the first few incidents, but after a while I got desensitized and just plowed through the carnage. Next, the book makes an excellent case against the dangers of uncontrolled Capitalism, but suggesting that Communism is a simple, easy answer to the problems is another lie. Economists know that neither system is a panacea, and the best solution is a middle ground that stimulates enterprise while still providing opportunity for all. The important issue becomes how to provide that, especially for vulnerable members of the population. And one last annoyance: this is written in first person, and Dietz remains ungendered through the whole book until a friend calls her by her first name on page 351. Please, either let us know about gender early on or else let the protagonist remain ungendered. This device is clearly meant to be a gotcha, and it is not a twist ending.

Four stars.

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 “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies on 21 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Eefa is a cripple and a healer and she has been a good husband, but now she wants to leave. She is married to the great warrior-woman Talaan the Lion and lives in the city of Xot, where the Emperor, Her Greatness the Mother of Vultures and Wolves, Ukhel’s Beloved, the Conqueror-King, has proclaimed the god Ukhel’s Era of Death. Talaan is pregnant with her fifth child, and now the Emperor wants her to fight in a war of conquest. Talaan has promised that this child will be unmarked by a promise scar and will not go off to war like her other children. Reluctantly, she agrees to the Emperor’s demands and rides to meet the foe. Her favorite son Tuvo, a sweet and sensitive page, is killed in the fighting. Talaan swears again her new daughter will not be scarred, but Eefa returns from praying at the temple to find the deed has been done. Talaan catches her packing to leave again. Will Eefa manage to escape the city this time?

On the positive side, this story features vivid imagery, strong characterization and impressive world-building. Although Eefa remains somewhat shadowy, Talaan comes across larger than life. This is a high fantasy tale where Talaan wrestles with her success as a warrior versus her love for her family. The Emperor, hooked on conquest, makes more and more demands of her hero, until the costs start to outweigh the benefits for The Lion and her First Husband. The fact that these women seem to be Amazons adds an interesting angle, and it’s impressive that Talaan agrees to go off to war while carrying a child. And then ready to take on the Emperor right after childbirth? Pretty tough.

On the less positive side, the usage of gender terms in this society is interesting, but the switch ends up being awkward. As the prime example, it’s not immediately obvious why Eefa is considered a husband and not a wife. Because she’s a cripple and engaged in a non-military profession? And Tuvo is a war-wife, while most husbands father children and, presumably, keep house? Okay, got it. But this did assemble fairly slowly throughout the narrative, meaning it set stumbling blocks that affected the flow of the story.

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

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.

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 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.

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