Review of “Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Tor.com. This is a stand-alone story that falls into Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. Novels in this universe include Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, both from Solaris, and Revenant Gun, coming soon.

The young Shuos Jedao is promised a promotion to moth commander if he can successfully carry out a special ops mission to rescue a crew captured by the Gwa-an and held at Du Station. Incidentally, Jedao went to space academy with the crew leader, Shuos Meng. Jedeo joins a merchant group which provides a cover, but apparent pirates turn out to be Gwa-an military. He allows himself to be arrested in order to infiltrate the station. Can he rescue Meng and the crew? And what should he do about that lusty fellow Techet?

This is more humorous than serious, starting with the shipment of goose fat from his mom that Jedeo takes for a bomb at the beginning, and ending with a final joke about the use Techet finds for the goose fat. The plotting is decent if not dramatic, including a twist ending. Lee drops the reader right into the universe without any explanation, so this becomes an experience in creative world-building. Since I’ve read a couple of Lee’s novels set in the universe at this point, it’s no longer new to me, but fresh readers are likely to be entertained by the complexity of the culture and the gender roles. The running joke about the goose fat and other lubricants is also amusing.

Not so good points: The complexity and lack of explanation will be hurdles for some readers. Also, I understand this is supposed to be humorous, but the particulars of the execution really stretched my suspension of disbelief—it’s just not convincing and actually comes off a bit slap-stick. Plus, the story didn’t generate much in the way of drama or investigation of the human condition, either one.

Presumably it’s just for fun.

Three stars.

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Are Pronouns Really that Important?

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Recently I’ve gotten, not just one, but two surveys from organizations asking about my gender identity/sexuality and what pronouns I’d prefer to use. Presumably this is so groups I’m affiliated with can 1) make a count of non-binary and/or genderqueer authors and 2) keep track of how everybody wants to be addressed. This makes it seem like an opportune time to discuss pronouns.

For anyone who is totally out of the loop on this, I’ll make an effort to explain—not that I’m an expert, of course, or even keeping up. Correct usage seems to shift significantly over time. “Genderqueer” is a term for people whose gender identity lies outside of what is considered normal male and female genders—gender being a role, as opposed to a sex, which is based on equipment. Someone who is genderqueer might express femininity, masculinity, neither or both as part of their gender identity. Related to this, gender neutrality is a movement to reduce gender-based discrimination through establishment of gender-neutral language, including pronouns.

This explains the recent innovation of “Latinx” instead of “Latino” or “Latina,” for example. There is also a considerable list of pronouns which have been advanced as gender-neutral. Because of the extensive variety of individual preferences, progressive organizations are apparently finding they need to set up databases to keep track of who prefers what. For anyone interested in the associated discussion, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson recently made an entrance onto the international stage by refusing to go along with this at the University of Toronto where he works. The review site Rocket Stack Rank was also called out recently for complaining about the non-standard usage.

There has been a flow of books and stories recently that use these non-traditional pronouns. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series is one example, as is Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota, both recognized with major awards. On the short story side, examples include “The Worldless” by Indrapramit Das, “Deep Waters Call Out to What is Deeper Still” by Sarah Frost and “The Pigeon Summer” by Brit Mandelo.

So, how do these non-traditional pronouns actually work out in practice? Do they accomplish what they’re designed to do? Do they improve the readability of the story or novel where they’re used?

Use of “they” and “their” has become so prevalent that I see Liz Bourke recently imposed this form on the genderless Murderbot, who is not a human being and correctly designated as an “it” by its creator Martha Wells.

Comments on the issue are welcome.

Review of Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Knopf.

Teddy Telemachus is a con artist. Always has been. Always will be. He’s getting kind of old now, so it’s time he took care of some things. He approaches the wife of a local crime boss in the grocery story, and as usual, his charm pays off. With her on his side, he’s got leverage to deal. Besides this, Teddy is a widower and the head of a family of dysfunctional psychics. He, himself, is a card reader. His daughter Irene can’t keep a husband or a job because she can tell when people are lying. His telekinetic son Frankie is in debt to the mob. His youngest Buddy is a clairvoyant that is terrified of somehow changing the future. His grandson finds that masturbation causes astral projection. And then, there are the twins. Can this family ever find happiness and success, or is the future going to end for all of them on September 4?

Looking at this from Buddy’s point-of-view, it’s a steaming, tangled pile of past, present and future. For most of the novel, he’s working hard, trying to make preparations for Zap day, when the future ends in his consciousness. Luckily we have information from other points-of-view, too, which help us make sense of what’s going on. Because of Buddy’s aptitude and Teddy’s con artist leanings, this is tightly plotted in many ways. Because of the wild card character of the family gifts, we also get a lot of human failings. Besides this, government agents are lurking about, hoping to replace Teddy’s dead wife Maureen as their greatest weapon. Plus, the mob.

This is a smooth, delightful read with absorbing characters and slightly over-the-top humor. It has a tendency to carry the reader along to the satisfyingly tied up ending, so it’s hard to be aware of not so good points. I did wonder a couple of times about Teddy’s ploys, especially in his and Frankie’s contacts with the mob. Zap day turned out to be sort of manic, and Buddy’s trans girl/boyfriend looked a bit artificial, like an editor’s insert to make the book more attractive as award material.

Regardless of these little issues, I’m going five stars on this one. Highly recommended.

Review of Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s billed as “vintage alternate reality” and was published by Tor. Presumably this is going to be an ongoing series, as it’s described as book 1 in the Amberlough Dossier. Book 2, Armistice, is due on May 15, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Cyril DePaul is from a wealthy family and works as a spy for the government of Amberlough. Since a mission gone wrong, he’s been working a desk at headquarters in Amberlough City and enjoying a torrid affair with cabaret performer and smuggler Aristide Makricosta. Cyril’s boss pulls him off the desk to take over an emergency assignment, and his cover is blown before he even gets started. He’s forced to make a deal with fascists agents planning to take over the government. Returning home, he breaks off his affair with Aristide and takes up with Cordelia, a stripper at the cabaret, trying to carry off a plan. Is there any way to stop the fascists and preserve Amberlough City? Can Cyril save himself, Cordelia and his lover Aristide? Can he even protect himself?

This book feels like the 1930s or 40s, and it’s notable for its detail and sensuality. We get to feel the early spring breeze, smell cologne and sweat mingled at the club, walk in a carpet of cherry petals in the park and even catch the butcher-shop scent when the dead bodies start to pile up. The story gets increasingly more gripping as the fascist’s plot advances and the main characters end up fighting for life and liberty. They’re pretty much down and out by the end of the book, but it’s clear that Cordelia, at least, is going to be real trouble for the bad guys.

Not so good points: I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy either one in this book. Also, if it’s an alternate reality, I don’t see what it’s alternate to. It’s a great intrigue set in in imaginary place, but not really SFF at all. Also, I think the sensuality is a little overdone so that it interferes with readability and obscures thin world building. I ended up with a really clear idea of who was sleeping with whom and what cologne they use, but not much about foreign politics and how this impacts Cyril’s decisions. There’s a logical issue here that makes his actions seem really questionable.

Four and a half stars (but not SFF).

Review of Autonomous by Analee Newitz

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction, published by Tor and runs 301 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Jack is a subversive. She started her career as a student opposing a pharmaceutical system that produces cures and lifestyle drugs for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. She ended up serving a term in prison when a protest went wrong, worked for a while in a lab that produced open source drugs and then drifted into piracy to fund her own research. Jack reverse engineers a recently released drug and finds that people are dying from her sales. Worse, IPC agents are now hot on her trail, specifically the violent and ruthless Eliasz and his robot partner Paladin. The two of them seem perfectly willing to cripple or kill all Jack’s friends and colleagues to get to her. Can Jack produce an anecdote to the dangerous drug she counterfitted? Can she escape with her life? Can Eliasz and Paladin find happiness with each other?

So, this is a pretty complex novel. First, although I’m not that great at identifying the fine points of political ideologies, I expect the subversives are anarchists. The pharmaceutical system sounds oddly familiar, something we might find in the US capitalist system, for example, and the notion that there should be no intellectual property rights isn’t exactly libertarian. In opposition, presumably the IPC agents are fascist.

Second, I also suspect there’s some meaning in the particular drug that Jack pirates. It’s a productivity enhancer that gives people pleasure in their work. Uncontrolled, as Jack has issued it, this produces a deadly addiction that causes people to work themselves to death. This also sounds familiar in the current landscape, where some states and countries are now passing laws that provide workers a right to work-life balance and freedom from the expectation they will always remain on call. Once Jack breaks the addiction, the people in the novel find they don’t really like to work at all.

Third, there is a subplot related to slavery. Jack picks up an indentured kid called Threezed (from the number branded on his neck) after she kills his master. The laws allowing humans to become indentured in this world parallel laws allowing the indenture of robots. As we follow Theezed’s experiences, it becomes clear this is a system for human trafficking, especially of disadvantaged children, with shades of student debt. Again, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with our own society. And, of course, the intelligent and self-aware Paladin is also enslaved and trafficked, a more obvious parallel.

Last, the relationship between Eliasz and Paladin comes across like some kind of weird Stockholm syndrome. Paladin is a hulking military model, with a human brain in its belly and gun ports in its chest. I wasn’t surprised that the violent Eliasz got off on this, but he mutters about not being a “faggot.” When he finds out Paladin’s brain is donated by a human woman, the relationship blooms, and he suggests that the genderless Paladin should choose to be female. In the end, the two of them run away together to find a new life on Mars.

The subversive counter culture that Newitz presents as challenging the pharmaceutical industry with open source drugs is initially attractive, except that the kids and researchers involved seem to be addicted to drugs the same as everyone else. I can’t trust any of them because I suspect they’re doped up and driven by the system. All efforts will come to naught, of course, because Big Pharma has such a stranglehold on the political system. Next, there’s the issue of intellectual property. For example, Newitz’s copyright on the novel is intellectual property, right? And then, there’s that thing with Paladin and Eliasz. So, this is satire.

Newitz is actually making fun of all these things? That’s refreshing. But it’s fairly complex fiction, of course, so probably there’s not that much risk that people will take offense at her treatment of trans robots.

Not so good points: The novel is intellectually very interesting and the characters are reasonably well-developed, but the larger world setting, including the political and economic sphere, is not well defined. There are a few points, suspiciously symbolic, which are not well supported. Also, the prose here is on the dry and matter-of-fact side. If there was supposed to be a hook, I couldn’t find it. Because of these issues, I had a really hard time getting started. I suspect the book would be a lot more readable with a different rendition.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes

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This novelette is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF magazine. The title of the story comes from a song by Ewan MacColl.

The narrator describes his childhood years growing up in an Irish neighborhood of Boston. He is bullied by boys from school, and his grandmother gives him a magic charm to protect himself. One of the boys is Eddie Mackey, but after his grandfather intervenes, the two become friends. Later Eddie goes off to the Vietnam War and then goes to acting school. When they meet again, the narrator is a playwright and Eddie is a young actor getting started. They become lovers, but then separate as Eddie goes off to Hollywood. Later they get back together after Eddie wins a Golden Globe for his work in a TV series called Dirty Old Town. Can they make one of Eddie’s dreams come true together?

This story is heavily character driven, without any real plot. The narrator talks about his childhood and the magic his grandparents shared, about struggling as a playwright and meeting Eddie off and on over the years. It’s a rambling reminiscence that comes together suddenly into a meaningful story at the end. It’s also metafiction to an extent, as the narrator includes sections he’s apparently written about similar characters.

Not so good points: The main complaints I’d have about this story is the length of the reminiscence and the liberal inclusion of metafiction, which I thought confused the storyline. Also, the magical workings here aren’t very well defined. Grandmother’s charm clearly works, but the rest of what the narrator considers magic is pretty nebulous. I’m thinking the dreams are symbolic rather than magical.

Four stars.

Review of The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was released by Tor.com Publishing and is described as one of two stand-alone introductions to the fantasy Tensorate Series. The other book referenced is The Red Threads of Fortune.

Akeha is an extra child, an unexpected twin born to the Protector. Along with their twin, they are promised to the Grand Monastery, but as Mokoya develops a gift of prophesy, their mother wants them back, so Akeha comes, too. When their confirmation date arrives, Mokoya decides to become a woman and marry the new high priest of the Monastery, but Akeha decides to become a man. This further alienates him as his mother’s only son. He leaves the palace, and eventually finds himself aligned with the Machinist rebels fighting against the evils of the Protectorate. As events progress, the conflict begins to threaten Mokoya and her child. How can Akeha reconcile the demands of ideology with the family he loves?

There’s a clash here between the Monastery and the Protectorate on the one hand, and between the old order of magic and the new order of technology on the other. As this is only an introduction, there’s not much that happens in the way of development. We follow the children as they grow up together and then weather the rocky coming-of-age when they make the choice at confirmation that separates them. This process is not well explained. Apparently children in this world are born genderless, and their bodies are manipulated at confirmation to correspond to their choice. At least one character we meet did not undergo manipulation, but their sexual functioning isn’t addressed. As the novel ends, it feels like conflict is starting to heat up between the rebels and the Protectorate.

The plotting, prose, characterization and world-building here are adequate for a short novella. Even though the conflicts didn’t develop very far in this book, the tensions seem to be pretty well set up, and presumably the plot will thicken as we move into full length novels. The lack of a fully developed conflict is the biggest drawback to this story, as there’s not a lot at stake so far. People are just choosing up sides, which means there’s not much of a satisfying ending, either.

Three and a half stars.

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