Review of “Compulsory” by Martha Wells

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This is a great find. It’s a Murderbot short story published by Wired magazine in January 2019 as part of the The Future of Work series, which should make it eligible for the next awards cycle. I imagine this could also be a teaser for Wells upcoming new Murderbot novel, Network Effect, which is scheduled for release in May of 2020. Her website suggests there might be a few more short stories upcoming. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot is working a mining contract where it’s obvious all the humans hate each other. At the moment, 98% of MB’s attention is on episode #44 of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, while the remaining 2% is monitoring ambient audio to keep track of what the humans are doing. Elane, Sekai and Asa are humans arguing on the observation platform. Sekai accidently falls into the mining pit, and MB sends an alert to HubSystem. MB’s current job is: 1) to keep the workers from stealing company property, 2) to keep the workers from killing management and 3) to keep the workers from reducing productivity. Because rescuing the worker falls outside these parameters, HubSystem orders MB to stay at its duty station. MB estimates incoming safety bots will be too late to rescue Sekai, so it steps off the observation platform, kicks off the stabilizer wall into a lower gravity well and lands on the housing above Sekai. She reaches up and catches its hand just as the blade she landed on cycles and drops ore into the smelter. HubSystem tries to fry MB’s circuits for disobeying, but ha, that governor module died a long time ago. MB climbs out of the pit, carrying its rescued human, meanwhile hacking HubSystem to make it think it gave the orders for rescue. MB checks the management feed to make sure this has gone undetected and finds company management is puzzled but unsuspicious. More terrifying: Sekai has gotten a glimpse of the real Murderbot.

This is a compact wrap-up of the MB state of affairs, well presented in a mere 1000 words. MB narrates, and its personality and humor come through in the usual way. You get an idea of its physical capabilities and hacking ability—which is what makes it so dangerous without the governor module—and the way it wants to watch media shows and sort of enjoys actually being of use once in a while. That’s a great touch at the end, too, where it thinks Sekai can almost see through the armor to the real, complex person underneath.

On the not so positive side, why didn’t that observation platform have some pretty sturdy guardrails in place? Surely a lot of workers falling off the edge would clog the machinery below. And how did MB climb out of the pit? Is there an access ladder or not? Inquiring minds want to know. Actually, the only serious complaint I have about this is that it needs to be longer. It could easily be the intro to another novella.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Congrats to the 2018 Nebula Award Winners!

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Novel: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

Novelette: “The Only Harmless Great Thing,” Brooke Bolander

Short Story: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Screenplay by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Wrap Up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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I’ve already reviewed the remaining Hugo stories as part of the Nebula series, so I’ll move on to a discussion of what patterns emerge from looking at the finalists. As usual, I’m just looking at the four main fiction categories: short story, novelette, novella and novel. I’ve not read/seen most of the rest, at least not well enough to comment. These numbers are as best I can figure from online biographies.

First, the Hugo finalists feature “diversity” as the WorldCon members like to define it. That includes a huge slant to female and lesbian writers with only 2 cis men: Daryl Gregory and P. Djèlí Clark (who appears twice). Seventy-five percent of the finalists were female and nearly 38% of the finalists were LGBTQ, with the trans Yoon Ha Lee as the only male gay author and Brooke Bolander the single non-binary (appearing twice). Sex/gender breakdown of the finalists: 18 women (75%), 3 men (13%), 1 trans (4%), 2 non-binary (8%), 9 LGBTQ (37.5%).

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Looking at the racial/ethnic composition of the list, it leaned very heavily to white this year. Including Jewish writers, this contingent amounted to a whopping 71%, leaving only 29% of the list for other ethnic/racial groups. The voters made maximum use of the African American writers they did nominate, with P. Djèlí Clark appearing in the list twice and Rebecca Roanhorse representing both African and Native Americans (for this breakdown, I’ve listed her as Native America). As usual, Hispanics are very poorly represented at 0%, although I see Malka Older gets a nod in the Best Series nominations. This year’s total of 3 is a big drop in the number of Asians nominated, down from 8 last year (or 30%), but the African American and Native American groups remained flat. Racial/ethnic breakdown: 12 ordinary white (50%), 5 Jewish (21%), 3 Asian (12.5%), 3 African American (12.5%), 1 Native American (4%), 0 Hispanic.

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One pattern that repeats from last year is the dominance of Tor as the favored publisher. Nine of the finalists were published by Tor (37.5%), Uncanny magazine showed up well with three finalists (12.5%), and Fireside with two (8%). The big-name print magazines were totally frozen out of the Hugo this year; Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF didn’t feature among the finalists at all. An interesting new addition to the field was Zen Cho’s story from the B&N website, apparently getting into the game against Tor.

Another interesting pattern is the repetitive nature of the authors nominated. Ten of these same finalists appeared on the list last year (42%); five of the same names (20%) appeared in 2017, and four of the same names (17%) appeared in 2016, even with heavy interference from Vox Day and the Rabid Pups in both these years. This suggests the WorldCon voters have a very limited reading list, leaning to publications from Tor and from a small group of mostly female authors that they nominate year after year.

This year the stories leaned to fantasy, with 13 of the finalists falling into that category (54%), leaving 11 that could be classified as some type of science fiction. At least 3 of the science fiction stories also included heavily fantastical elements, and only Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition could be classified as anything remotely like hard SF. Twelve of these stories (50%) were also Nebula finalists.

Last, these stories tended to feature political messages, including a 3rd wave feminist slant. Five of the finalists (21%) went so far as to include a troubling quality of misandry, featuring men in stupid and/or sexist character roles. There were a high number of lesbian couples in the finalists’ stories, too, but I thought the number of non-binary characters was down a little from last year. Male gay characters remained poorly represented, featuring in about 8% of the stories.

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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This is a sort-of science fiction novel and a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga in April 2018 and runs about 304 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Has-been glam rocker Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the only musician left of the Absolute Zeros, are approached to perform in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a song contest that’s open to any alien race—with a little catch. Species that come in last at their first contest are pronounced non-sentient “meat” and eradicated from existence. Can Dess and Oort overcome self-doubt and competitor sabotage to rescue humankind from extermination?

This seems to be satirical absurdist humor. It rocks along at a reasonably fast pace with a lead in that gives us the history of the Sentience Wars, with the competition, like the Eurovision Contest, launched as a way to move forward in a more civilized fashion. The satirical part seems to be about racism. Or maybe the music business. Or maybe both? High points: Aliens decide against evaluating Earth’s house cats as a sentient species. Dess’ lost love Mira Wonderful Star asks him to marry her. The immigrant Oort works hard at being normal to escape police interest and eventually rescues humanity with a Christmas carol. Also on the positive side, Valente gets a lot of credit for keeping a narrative like this going for 300 plus pages.

On the not so positive side, this won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. It has minimal plot and most of it is complete nonsense about non-existent, not-especially-believable alien species doing weird things and making weird music. Because of the absurdist quality, I didn’t connect with the characters well. The ending was clearly foreshadowed, so didn’t surprise me.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is published by Solaris, and is third in the Machineries of Empire series, following Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, also awards finalists. It’s published by Solaris and runs 400 pages. There’s an accompanying collection of stories from this universe called Conservation of Shadows, plus a few singletons about on Amazon. This review contains major spoilers.

This book picks up roughly ten years after Raven Stratagem leaves off, though we have flashbacks that fill in some events since then. A new Shuos Jedao wakes, resurrected by the ancient and powerful Hexarch Kujen. Jedao finds himself in an alien, chimera body that reflects the scars and traumas of an older man, but he only remembers being a seventeen-year-old cadet at military school. He finds Kujen wants him to be his general and lead the forces of the hexarch against the upstart Protectorate formed when the rogue general Cheris-Jedeo took over the Kel forces and Hexarch Mikodez staged a coup. Plus, it quickly becomes clear that Kujen is a cruel tyrant, and that the young and inexperienced Jedeo has no free will in the matter. Can he find a way to victory?

On the positive side, this installment is a great setup to continue the investigation of consensual reality and free will that runs through this series. The Kel on board Kujen’s command ship Revenant hate and fear the new Jedeo, both because of what he is now and what his predecessors did in the past, but they have to follow him because of the Kel formation instinct. In turn, Jedeo quickly finds he is a captive, meant only to be Kujen’s tool and that he has no free will, either. Even his aide is forced to submission through psych surgery. Besides this, the mothships are also slaves, an alien lifeform harnessed to serve in the human wars. As usual, the characters are well-developed, and there’s a light strain of humor that runs through the whole thing, despite the horrors and decadence of the empire. Some of the asides are very touching. The pacing and plot run better in this installment than in the last, with plenty of action, suspense and conflict to keep the reader interested. Last, Kujen’s physical attraction and sexual manipulations bring a strain of S&M to this installment of the series that I didn’t pick up in the predecessors.

On the less positive side, I was disappointed by Cheris-Jedeo’s character in this installment. When the young Jedeo woke, I thought, “Oh, goody! It’s going to be a contest between the two Jedeos,” but it didn’t turn out that way. The young Jedeo is brilliant, of course, but Cheris-Jedeo seriously under-performs, is suddenly incompetent as an assassin, fails to communicate where they should and falls into knee-jerk reactions where they ought to know better—although they do finally come through with some helpful insight that wins the final battle. Besides this, I ended up with some questions about events and motivations. These may suggest this is all getting too complex to manage and/or that Lee has forced his characters into particular roles to send social messages. First, it looks like physical mods are widespread in this universe. People make themselves younger and more beautiful and apparently change genders at will. So, why is Brezen still worrying about sex prejudice and wearing something as uncomfortable as breast bindings to look like a man? Second, if the Protectorate is going to ditch the old order and bring a new freedom, why are the Kell still programmed and enslaved to formation instinct? Next, how is it that, in a universe where math is so basic to reality, the young Jedeo makes a simple sign error in his battle calculations? Doesn’t he check his work? With all those servitors around, doesn’t he have a friendly AI to help out? Or is he keeping these in his head because they’re such a dark secret? The issue seems simplistic and contrived (maybe a message to young readers about math?), and I think it would have been better to leave his error undefined. Next, after it’s clear the Revenant has rebelled, why doesn’t Jedeo give the order to abandon ship? I know it’s questionable whether anyone could have gotten off, but it looks really unethical for the brass to clear out like that and leave the crew to die onboard. And why didn’t all the other mothships rebel at the same time? They could have killed all the humans and escaped. Wouldn’t the sudden calendrical spike have affected their crews’ control of them? Last, if Kujen maintains the black cradle, how is it that he only seems to have had one copy of Jedeo’s consciousness? Apparently he let a big part of this get away from him when Cheris claimed Jedeo as her weapon of choice, and now he’s only left with Jedeo’s cadet memories? Of course, it’s possible that he just wants a Jedeo too young to have formed subversive opinions, but statements seem to indicate this is all he has left to work with. Still, maybe he has multiple copies now, as he’s made previous, unsuccessful constructs with other clones. I’m left scratching my head about this one.

Final verdict: Negatives are inconsequential. This is an entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and was published by Hodder & Stoughton/Harper Voyager. The story falls into Chambers’ Wayfarer series, following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It runs around 358 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After trashing Earth, a group of humans left several centuries ago for interstellar space in an Exodus Fleet of generation ships. They eventually encountered other species and settled planets in the Galactic Commons free market, but some humans still stayed resident in the Fleet, allotted an orbit around a small star. This narrative (including an archive history written by the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan) follows the personal stories of a group of characters on the ship Asteria: Kip, a boy from the Fleet who wants something more; Sawyer, a young man from a planet who wants the security of his family’s roots on the Fleet; Eyas, the ship’s caretaker and composter of human remains; Isabel, the archivist; and Tessa, a young mother and salvage supervisor. Humans are integrating into the Galactic Commons, and these people are all faced with change in the culture that has maintained them for generations aboard the Fleet.

This is what is called a slow burner, as there’s no action line, very little conflict and not even much in the way of events in the first three-quarters of the book. The Fleet community seems to be a Utopian communist co-op, where everyone is guaranteed a home, air, an education and enough to eat, while expected to spend time in working for the common good. Money is not used aboard the ships, and trade is handled through a barter system. This is that safe space everyone is looking for, and the community is warm and welcoming. Asteria does seem to be experiencing a certain amount of stagnation, which is a real issue for societies that fail to balance capitalism and socialism well enough, and everyone has to deal with the austerity. Of course, now they’re now threatened by innovation and the Commons free market, and the question is rising about they can or really need to maintain the insular security of the Fleet any longer. I couldn’t identify anything much of a theme; maybe just the continuance of the human race? Purpose? There are statements, however: 1) All sapients are respected and valued; 2) death is a positive opportunity to recycle people into resources for others; 3) everybody needs to find their purpose; 4) there are givers and takers in the universe; and 5) it’s easy to accidentally destroy a species.

On the not so positive side: This is hard to get into, mainly because of the lack of action and conflict in most of the book; plus, I wasn’t immediately engaged by the characters. The story does offer comments on the human condition, and it gets emotional suddenly in the last quarter. However, I’m suspicious about the Utopian quality of the Fleet culture. The book doesn’t say what they do about mental illness, irresponsible layabouts and criminals in this society, or why there isn’t a huge crush of planetary immigrants seeking welfare—the kind of problems that plague real socialist economies on Earth. Also, I’m wondering how the same people who destroyed Earth would come together to create this utopia within the Fleet, with everybody suddenly cooperating and doing their part and not trashing the ship’s environment.

Four stars.

Review of Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

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This novella is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s published by Tor.com and runs 202 pages. It follows the previous award-winning novellas Binti and Binti: Home and finishes out the Binti trilogy. This review contains spoilers.

This book takes up where Binti: Home leaves off. After finishing her first year at Oomza Uni, Binti has returned home to go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe, and brought the Meduse Okwu as an ambassador of peace to her people. However, instead of completing the pilgrimage, she has a vision and travels into the desert with a boy named Mwinyi, where she is inoculated in the ways of her father’s people the Enyi Zinariya. On the way home, she experiences frightening visions of her home the Root burning. While she was gone into the desert, the Khoush people have used Okwu’s presence as an excuse to attack the Root. Once home, Binti finds her family is gone, along with many of the Khoush, but Okwu has survived. Now the Meduse are massing for an attack on the Khoush forces. Her people the Himba are angry with her for bringing this conflict on them. Can she harmonize the situation? Or will she lose her own life instead?

On the positive side, this continues the progressive themes from Binti: Home about trying to harmonize relations between different races and calling out racial prejudice. Binti takes on responsibility for bringing multiculturalism and different ways to her people, even though she is reviled and distrusted for it. At the end of the book, she is not only half Himba and half Enyi Zinariya, but she has also absorbed Meduse DNA and microbes from the living ship New Fish. Some of the juxtapositions here struck me as quite charming: for example, while Binti weeps in the smoldering ruins of the Root, Mwinyi’s camel Rakumi eats her brother’s vegetable garden.

On the not so positive side, the first part of this novella is messy and hard to follow, as it involves Binti’s nightmare visions of her family dying in the flames of the Root. Once we’re back home, the horrific nightmare continues as conflict plays out between the Khoush and the Meduse on the Himba lands. Questions about the tech carry over from earlier installments of the series. Binti’s use of treeing, or running math equations to generate a “current” remain unexplained, as is the question of whether the desert people’s communications system is some kind of nanotech. This also gets into Disneyesque territory, where instead of using her training, Binti loses it and screams at the elders of her village. It appears they understand that she’s right and will do what she wants, but in this case the council stands her up and leaves her to deal with the war on her own. Then Binti’s visions turn out to be false. She brings conflict to her tribe’s lands, fails to stop the war, barely escapes with her life, and finally retreats to the safety of Oomza Uni to be with her friends. This suggests that trying to bring multiculturalism to entrenched tribes isn’t that rewarding.

As usual, the author’s theme and symbolism are strongly developed, but the writing is a bit messy. This has a more negative feel than previous installments.

Three and a half stars.

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