Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Hidden Histories edited by Juliana Rew

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This is Juliana Rew’s 25th themed anthology of short stories, a collection of alternate secret histories that range from fantasy to science fiction and various slipstream combinations in between. There are 28 stories in this collection, all original, and written by international crew of authors, followed by a little clutch of flash fiction stories. This collection runs 276 pages and is published by Third Flatiron, which publishes digital science fiction and fantasy anthologies and other projects, with print editions also available.

It’s always hard to review a collection of short stories, as it’s not something you can summarize in one easy paragraph. Let me say that Juliana Rew is reliable to find good quality stories without the heavily political messages that often run through SFF and fantasy these days. These stories are quick reads, interesting and often touching in the way they express the theme. Each author has taken an event from history and imagined how it might have happened and what might have gone on behind the scenes. Standouts for me this time include the following: Jimi Hendrix meets an alien that influences his music; a commander flies a secret shuttle mission as part of the Cold War; a Native American researcher gets strange results when she extracts DNA from an ancient bone; the patriot John Wilkes Booth writes letters to his mother; ancient sentinels try to save humanity from itself; a Nazi wonderwaffen project continues on long after the death of its authors; and from the flash fiction at the end–strange tourists try to order pizza in Eugene, Oregon

On the not so positive side, the story length here means the stories are less well developed than they could be. Many of these could have benefited from a longer treatment.

Authors include: Bruce Golden, Matthew Reardon, Brenda Kezar, Kai Hudson, Brian Trent, Jonathan Shipley, Dantzel Cherry, Edwina Shaw, Dennis Maulsby, Michael Robertson, Mike Barretta, Ricardo Maia, J.D. Blackrose, John A. Frochio, Arthur Carey, Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, Elizabeth Beechwood, Robert Dawson, James Chmura, Tony Genova, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Simon Lee-Price, Shannon McDermott, Jennifer Lee Rossman, H. J. Monroe, Evan A. Davis, Tyler Paterson, and A. Humphrey Lanham.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Static Ruin by Corey J. White

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This novella is The Voidwitch Saga Book #3. It’s science fiction, was released November 6, 2018, by Tor.com and runs 218 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This novella starts slightly after the events of Void Black Shadow. Mars is on Joon-ho Station, having left Squid and Mookie on Aylett Station, and now on the run from the Emperor’s Guard. She visits Dr. Ahlam’s clinic, hoping to get help for Pale, who is having seizures. Ahlam recommends that Mars contact her father Marius Teo to get help for the boy. Mars has a lot of residual anger against her father, who cloned her from her mother’s cells and then sold her and her sister to MEPHISTO. Betrayed, Mars has to fight her way off the station, but successfully arrives at Sanderak where she finds a conclave that worships a statue of her mother and a hologram of her father. Her dad has actually been kidnapped by a businessman named Rafael Hurtt, who wants to use his cloning technology. Can Mars rescue her father? Get help for Pale? Can she get the Emperor’s Guard off her backtrail?

By the finish of this series, it’s taken on quite a bit more depth—a real theme developed somewhere along the line. It looks like the imperial government is using MEPHISTO and its corporate cronies to enslave anybody unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches with the aid of transhuman and uplift technology. This includes kids, adults and whatever other living creature that might look attractive or useful to the evil scientists and their overlords. We’ve met a bunch of miserable victims along the line, as people and animals all suffer through the misery of surgical experimentation and deployment as a weapon.

Because of its broad sweep and action-orientation, this doesn’t have the impact that a more character-oriented story would have—the carnage here seems the main point. Still, you have to give it credit for a viable projection and a strong warning message about a possible future. That moves it up some on the Ideation Scale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Thing about Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine, November-December 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Leah is working on her dissertation in folklore, and her mom helps her by critiquing and editing the manuscript. Although Leah experienced a ghost herself when she was five, she is now more interested in how people attach meaning and purpose to their ghost stories. Leah’s mom is diagnosed with dementia. She urges Leah to go on and publish the manuscript as a book, but she doesn’t live to see its publication. After successfully getting her doctorate, Leah takes a job in academia and continues with research for another book, interviewing people about ghost’s they have seen and experienced. A couple of these interviewees tell Leah her mom is sitting right there next to her. Is there’s something unresolved in her mother’s death?

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm and slightly humorous. The characters are very engaging, and you’re pretty well hooked by the third paragraph when mom puts in an appearance. This is a poignant glimpse of what it’s like to lose a family member to dementia, as mom goes from being reliable to an unreliable editor and confidant, and finally Leah starts giving her fake documents to edit and then throws them away at the end of the day. She labors to finish her doctorate, trying to balance the demands of school with neurologist appointments, and then carries on with a career after her mother dies. The situation unfolds gradually, as we find her mother is trying to communicate from beyond the grave, and then ends gently as the situation is finally resolved.

On the not so positive side, I thought the tone was offensive and disrespectful to sufferers of dementia. This condition isn’t anything at all humorous. It’s a huge tragedy, both to the victims who feel their mental capacity and independence slipping away, and to family members who have to support them and deal with often challenging mental symptoms. Phrases like, “…figured that if she wrapped herself around my ankle early, it would be that much harder for me to shake her loose later on,” and “Mom really started to lose her marbles,” show us Leah’s exasperation, but completely ignore the pain and fear that her mother must be experiencing as her mental faculties start to fail. It’s no wonder she comes back to haunt her daughter. Kritzer soft-pedals Leah’s burden, too. It’s not going to be as simple as just taking Mom to adult day-care while you continue on with your studies–this condition is a nightmare for caregivers.

Dementia seems to run a close second to endangered children as a device to create emotion in a story, but if we’re going to do that, let’s have a hard, clear look at it, please.

Four stars.

Comparing Polk’s Witchmark to Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

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I’ve just finished reading the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula. Interestingly, some of the authors have used the same plotline to write their books, but expressed completely different worldviews. I thought it would be helpful to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books. Here’s the second comparison of works from the Nebula ballot.

C.L. Polk and last year’s winner N.K. Jemisin have used basically the same plotline: Highly talented witches are enslaved and their power used to preserve and fuel the societies where others live in relative comfort and safety. Renegade witches manage to break the system and install a new order.

Jemisin’s three-part tale should be fairly familiar, as it’s a multi-award winner. A land called the Stillness is seismically active. Stills are ordinary people and orogenes are witch talents able to control the seismic activity. Orogenes are hated and feared, and Guardians capture the children and enslave them to work for the kingdom. Besides this, nodes in an earthquake suppression system contain children who have been mutilated and lobotomized. These slaves protect the land, but live in constant agony. The orogene Essun kills her firstborn son to keep him from this kind of slavery. Angered by the system, her lover Alabaster breaks the land, and refugees stream south away from the epicenter. Essun follows the flow, searching for her daughter Nassun. She finds Alabaster dying in the settlement of Castrima, and he asks her to complete the task of destroying the world, to recapture the moon and establish a new order. Essun finds her daughter and they struggle for control of the Obelisk Gate. Nassun wins, but convinced by her mother’s sacrifice, she goes on to capture the moon and reestablish seismic order in the world.

In Polk’s book, witches who are not storm-singers are enslaved as secondaries to supply power to the storm-singers that maintain the climate of Aeland. Witches who are not bonded this way are kept in prisons/asylums and used to process souls into the aether grid used for lights and power in Aeland. Miles Hensley (a.k.a. Miles Singer) is a member of a powerful family and a witch who has faked his own death to avoid slavery and establish a career as a military doctor. He is located by his sister Grace and forcibly bonded to her as a secondary. However, he has a friend and lover in Tristan Hunter, a fay Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from Aeland. When Grace fails in her bid to take over the elite counsel of storm-singers, she travels to a witch’s asylum with Miles and Tristan, where they find the truth about the power grid in Aeland and combine forces to destroy it.

What do the writers mean to accomplish? The plot is basically LeGuin’s “Return to Omelas” plot about righting the wrongs of slavery used to support a society, so we have to assume this is the message. What do the writers mean to accomplish with their rendition of it? Jemisin’s work is an ugly tale about hate and anger. Her characters kill and torture their own children and they abhor and abuse each other, totally debased by the system. The powerful orogenes are slowly turning to stone. Those who are already reborn as stone-eaters could probably help with the plan to rescue the world, but they stand by and do pretty much nothing. No one is heroic here, and the angry abused child Nassun really means to destroy the world with the Obelisk Gate until her mother interferes. On the other hand, Polk presents warm, likable characters who are aware of the tip of the iceberg of witch slavery and how this supports the common good. They discuss methods of improving the system, but being young, they aren’t totally aware of what’s going on. When the time comes for them to take over from the previous generation, they discover the truth about how their society consumes souls. They act immediately to end the system, putting their lives on the line to force social change. I’d have to evaluate Jemisin’s work as an angry warning about a dying society, and Polk’s as encouragement to act immediately on the injustice we see.

Which is more fun to read? Again, that depends on your reading taste. Jemisin’s work is hard to read. She disguises her characters and it takes some digestion of the whole trilogy to understand the story. It is not fun to read, and the readability problems mean that her message is probably lost to many readers. On the other hand, Polk’s work is warm and character-oriented. The message may suffer from too much subtlety; that it’s complicated by a separate subplot, and the fact that it only comes into full focus at the end of the book. However, this one is definitely more entertaining to read.

Which provides the better role models for potential saviors of the world? I could do without all the hate and anger in Jemisin’s work—that provides for very poor role models—but is that necessary to call attention to inequalities in our society? Is Polk’s work too warm and sweet to capture the necessary attention?

Comparing Brazee’s Fire Ant to Kowal’s The Calculating Stars

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For readers following along, I’ve just finished reviewing the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Award. When I started looking at patterns, I noticed that many of the authors used similar literary devices and plotlines. I’d like to take a closer look at a couple of these. In the first comparison, Jonathan Brazee and Mary Robinette Kowal have used the same plotline to write their books on the ballot this year, while expressing completely different worldviews in the results. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books.

Here’s how the plotline goes: There’s a threat to the survival of the human race. A minority woman who happens to be a pilot is front and center for the threat, and as a result gets an opportunity to advance her skills and experience in order to be instrumental in saving the human race.

Brazee’s heroine is Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay. Her name suggests mixed racial ancestry: O’Shea is of Irish origin, Salinas is Hispanic and Dalisay is Tagalog/Filipino. Floribeth seems to be from an humble background, and she works hard so she can send money home to her family. When she encounters an alien spacecraft, she uses her wits and skill to survive and escape. The company she works for refuses to believe her story and fines her for damages to their equipment. However, word gets out, and Floribeth is approached by government officials who offer her a chance to enter the Royal Navy as a pilot. Floribeth takes the chance and goes through the training. When she does poorly in the first live exercise, she acknowledges the damage to her reputation, but doesn’t let it affect her drive and belief in herself. She ignores snide comments about her qualifications and concentrates on doing her job. She goes on to heroically rescue a member of her unit as a last ditch effort in a real firefight with the aliens.

Kowal’s heroine is Elma York, a Jewish woman from a comfortable background with PHDs in physics and math. She has wartime experience as a pilot and works as a human computer for NACA, the space administration where her husband Nathaniel also works as an aerospace engineer. When a meteor strikes the Northeastern US and threatens life on Earth, NACA starts an accelerated program to develop space flight and establish a colony on the moon. Elma’s PHDs are aimed at research and teaching, but she has applied for a job well below her qualifications. She suffers from panic attacks when asked to make presentations of her work in public, takes tranquilizers and hides to puke in the bathroom. When her husband asks her to help him with a presentation before Congress, she totally freezes up and leaves him to labor through it alone. While the people around her try to give her opportunities to promote her abilities and expertise, Elma complains constantly about discrimination in the space program. When the astronaut corps is opened to women, she applies and is accepted. Once there, she carps about other women being advanced above her and bullies others in the group she feels are less qualified than she is. When an emergency arises, Elma successfully demonstrates her ability to make complex mathematical calculations in her head and is installed as pilot on the upcoming moon launch.

So, what do the writers mean to accomplish with these works? Brazee’s book has a very positive, you-can-do-it vibe. We get to follow along with Floribeth as she experiences terror in space and anger at the company. Then, given the opportunity, she takes risks and builds on her skills. She is rewarded by success and warm acceptance into her naval unit. On the other hand, Kowal’s book is meant to provoke anger at how Elma and her minority friends are mistreated by the society around them. We’re led to believe that Elma’s activism makes the space program more accepting of women, and that she ought to be recognized for her brilliance and promoted regardless of her poor career performance. Kowal has written the book as an alternate reality, drawing on real historical documents and events that blur the line between fiction and real history, and produced a very slanted story that serves as a condemnation of NASA and the US Apollo program.

Which is more fun to read? That depends on your reading taste, of course. If you want to read a success story in a universe that doesn’t discriminate based on sex or minority status, then choose Brazee’s work. It’s experiential and leaves you with a nice warm feeling that Floribeth is going to make everything okay, regardless of the huge hurdles in front of her. If you want to get angry about how women and minorities might have been treated at the end of World War II, then read Kowal’s work, which provides fictionalized examples designed to provoke you. (One note about this: It’s not that I don’t think the US space program was discriminatory in the 20th century, but any analysis of the program should include a look at World War II, the Cold War and the politics and huge societal changes that took place during these years.)

And last, which of these women characters is a better role model for young women considering military, technical or science careers? Elma and her paralyzing anxiety about performance, or Floribeth and her I-can-do-it attitude?

Wrap up of the 2018 Nebula Reviews

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I’ve already reviewed Artificial Condition by Martha Wells and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, so this finishes up the works in the 2018 Nebula fiction categories—I may get to the Norton works later, but I won’t get them done before the voting deadline on March 31. I already wrote a blog on patterns after accusations of irregularities in the voting flew around a while back, so now I’ll look for a few more.

Similar to last year, this list of fiction finalists contains what I think is real diversity. There’s a wide variety of different voices, styles and types of fiction, though some categories feature more than others. For the demographic breakdown, there appear to be 4/24 (17%) writers of African ancestry, 4/24 (17%) writers of Asian ancestry, maybe 3/24 (12.5%) Hispanic/Native Americans and 5/24 (20.8%) Jewish. That leaves about 32.7% other. For the gender breakdown, it looks like 14/24 (58%) are women and 10/24 (42%) men. It’s a little harder to pin down sexual orientation, but about 4/24 (17%) look to be LGBTQ. This is a pretty good fit to US population demographics except for Hispanic/Native Americans, currently about 35% of the US population and underrepresented again this year. I don’t see any writers of Arab ancestry on the ballot, currently about 1% of the US population and 6% of the EU population.

A rough breakdown by genre looks like 10 (42%) works of science fiction, 12 (50%) works of fantasy and 2 (8%) hard to classify/sort of alternate reality. Three were military SF and maybe 2 to 3 would qualify as hard SF. Nine of the works (37.5%) would likely qualify as “own voices” where the writer presents a viewpoint from his or her particular ethnic background. Interestingly, I’m wondering if this trend in the marketplace may have encouraged Jewish writers to feature their ethnic backgrounds more prominently.

There was also pretty decent variety in the themes and devices this year, although these seemed to me a bit too predictable. Four out of six of the short story finalists (17% of the total), for example, used endangered children as a device to create emotional content. Eight of the works (30%) used threat of climate change or environmental poisoning as a device to create conflict. Five of the works (21%) included gender, sexual orientation or sexual abuse as devices to create progressive content. There were also a couple of folks who used the same basic plot lines, or plot lines similar to recent winners. I’ll get to that comparison in future blogs.

As far as quality goes, these are generally well-written stories with the standard devices, plot lines and themes meant to appeal to the writer’s particular audience. I don’t think anyone could point out that indy or traditionally published works, for example, were any worse or better than others. The increase in military and hard SF over recent years has reduced the amount of “literary” work on the list, but that just reflects the current makeup of the SFWA organization. I do think some of the works could have used an editorial reality-check, but that’s not a problem you can pin down to any one particular group.

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