Review of Integration (Ghost Marines Book 1) by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novel is military SF, released by Semper Fi Press on 25 April 2018. It runs 242 pages and is the first novel of a series. The second novel, Unification (Ghost Marines Book 2), was released in August, 2018, and Fusion is forthcoming. Integration was a 2018 Dragon Award Finalist for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. Brazee’s novelette “Weaponized Math,” from The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3, was a 2018 Nebula finalist. This review may contain spoilers.

Leefe is Wyntonian, a non-human from Hope Hollow. When he is still a child, his home settlement is attacked by human slavers, and the community is saved by Imperial Marines. Three tri-years later, the new Emperor of the Empire announces a plan to integrate non-humans into the Imperial Marines. The now-adult Leefen, remembering his admiration for the soldiers who rescued him, volunteers to be one of the first group of Wyntonians to apply for induction. This move by the Emperor is clearly a political strategy to unify the Empire, and all the Wyntonians are warned about failing. In order to become a real marine, Leefen will have to pass testing to achieve induction, get through boot camp, and most importantly, overcome the racism of humans who spitefully call Wyntonians “ghosts.” Does he have what it takes?

The story details Leefen experiences of the induction and training process, then carries on into his service deployments, including a mission to rescue hostages and—coming full circle, a final one to rescue the helpless captives of outlaw slavers. The main theme is the importance of the process that integrates the raw recruits into a cohesive unit, and how they try to confront and defeat prejudice by finding common ground and kinship with humans.

This is a smooth read with a minimal action line. There’s a certain amount of violence, of course, but it’s tailored to support the main theme of unity. The characters are well-developed. The politics in the Empire is suggested, but not detailed. Leefen is offered a political post when his enlistment is up, but avoids it for the moment. There are plenty of interesting leads here that I expect will develop in book 2.

Four stars.

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Review of Venom (2018 movie)

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This movie is from the Sony Marvel universe. (If you’re wondering what that is, Sony owns the rights to about 900 Marvel characters.) It was written by Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, directed by Ruben Fleischer and stars Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed. It was released by Columbia Pictures on 5 October 2018. (Yeah, I know. I’m running really behind again.) This review contains spoilers.

Eddie Brock is a reporter who has a show with a major network. He gets an interview with the head of Life Foundation Carlton Drake. Brock’s fiancé Ann Weyling is an attorney working to defend the Life Foundation against charges of improper human trials. Told to conduct a low key interview, Brock asks about the trials case instead. He loses his job, and worse, Ann loses hers. She is furious, gives him his ring back and starts dating a surgeon. Meanwhile, Drake is conducting space flights where he has collected aliens who need a symbiote in order to survive on Earth. Drake is signing homeless people up for trials where he infects them with the symbiote, but they just die because of immune rejection. Dr. Dora Skirth, one of Drake’s employees, calls Brock and brings him to the facility to show him what’s going on. Brock becomes infected with an alien that calls itself Venom. Venom confides that it is part of an invasion force, but it likes Earth the way it is, so will oppose the planned invasion. Drake also becomes successfully infected and readies a spacecraft to bring the rest of the invasion force to Earth, but Brock/Venom destroys the rocket with Drake aboard. Is Ann infected, too? Will she star in a sequel?

This is a watchable movie, but not highly engaging or exciting. Everybody does their part, the screenwriters, the stars, the CGI techs, etc. There are great themes, alien invasion, evil scientists experimenting on the homeless, a moral opposition—but it just didn’t quite get there. I think the problem is that nobody in the movie is more than ordinarily attractive, and the alien Venom is downright ugly. Plus the film is too short to include much of a struggle between Brock and the powerful Venom for control of their relationship. This should have been the central issue. Venom just seems to decide out of the blue that it likes it here and doesn’t want any more of his race trashing up the environment. In the comic, Venom is historically cast as a bad guy, and this screenplay just didn’t make up for its unlovable qualities.

Stan Lee did put in an appearance. Don’t leave before the credits. There’s a post-credits scene where Brock goes to a maximum security prison to interview serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), who may be Carnage in a planned sequel. There’s also a post-credit scene from the upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Three stars.

Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

Review of Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

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This is the fourth novella in the series titled The Murderbot Diaries. It was released 2 October 2018 by Tor. This has been a highly successful series, including the Hugo and Nebula winner All Systems Red, followed by Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol. A full length novel continuing the story is scheduled for release in 2020. This review contains massive spoilers.

At the end of Rogue Protocol, Murderbot has safely escaped Milu on Ship. Since Ship isn’t all that bright, it monitors Ship’s inputs as they approach HaveRatton Station. When Ship is directed to divert from its usual dock by Port Authority, Murderbot uses an evac suit to leave through the cargo module airlock and enters the station through another docked ship. The diversion turns out to be about a large security force waiting for some rogue SecUnit. Hm. Safely on its way, Murderbot checks the newsfeeds and finds that GrayCris has charged its owner Dr. Mensah with corporate espionage and that she is now missing. Intensive research suggests this is about the data Murderbot collected on Milu, and that she’s being held on TranRollinHyfa Station where GrayCris has its corporate headquarters. Murderbot uses an ID chip and a hard currency card it took from hired killers Gerth and Wilken and catches a fast passenger transport for TRH. Once there, it identifies a bond company gunship sitting off the station. Pulling a status report, it finds the ship has been refused dockage by the station, but a shuttle from the ship has docked. Drs. Pin Lee, Ratthi and Gurathin are on the station attempting to negotiate Mensah’s release. Can Murderbot get her out of GrayCris’clutches without getting caught itself? If so, then what?

This continues the story arc with the same great features of the other novellas. The world building is notably excellent, as are the characters. Because it’s written in first person, we have the advantage of Murderbot’s wonderfully entertaining viewpoint. Not only is it getting much better at impersonating a human, but I’m suspecting that “comm interface” component ART made up for it provides a lot of extra processing power. We’re also finally seeing why rogue SecUnits really are dangerous, as Murderbot casually hacks its way through the station’s protected systems while simultaneously outwitting GrayCris’ security force and carrying on an apparent love affair with Dr. Mensah (just like on the media shows). Once it’s trapped, the violence escalates, and it doesn’t want to shut the aggression down. Only Mensah’s tenuous hold on it keeps things together. There’s been a rising action line through the whole series, and this caps it off nicely.

On the not so great side, I’ve got some nits to pick with the whole story arc at this point. I suspect the series was written fairly quickly, as Wells has said it’s a short story that got out of control, and after the huge success of the first novella, she quickly got in gear to produce the rest. Tor was also in a hurry to follow up on the initial success, and went light on the editing. That means there are some inconsistencies in the content. 1) ART’s modifications included reducing Murderbot’s height by either one or two centimeters; we’re not sure which. 2) The sampling device that tried to capture Don Abene in Rogue Protocol snatched her helmet away, but later she has it again. 3) In Exit Strategy, the Preservation group plans not to mention Murderbot is a SecUnit so there will be no questions about citizenship, but somehow Mensah’s daughter knows. Also, the plan to produce a documentary (presumably what this series is) will also reveal this issue. Hello? 4) At the end of Exit Strategy, what happened to Murderbot’s projectile weapon? I can’t believe it left that behind, but it just sort of disappears. 5) At the end of Exit Strategy, was it struck by shrapnel or a projectile? It says both in different places. 6) In Exit Strategy, I didn’t quite believe the scenario that led to system failure. It seems like a processing overload would have just led to burnt out capacitors. Extending into a different system should be done with copied code, right? Like a virus? And that shouldn’t jumble up the original code, right? Somebody who knows about AI architecture help me out on this one.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Making A List of Anthologies Edited by Women and POC for 2018

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Okay, following up on the last blog, I’ll try to compile a list. If you’re a woman or POC who has edited an anthology that will be released in 2018, send me your info. If you know of a woman or POC who has edited an anthology in 2018 that’s not listed below, let me know. Also, let me know if I’ve made a mistake anywhere below. I’ll also be happy to include non-binary editors/publishers. This is for promotional purposes only, and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to review all the entries. Here’s what I found with just a few minutes of searching:

  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 (The Best American Series) Oct 2, 2018 by John Joseph Adams and N.K. Jemisin
  • Blacktastic!: Blacktasticon 2018 Anthology Jun 25, 2018 by Linda Addison and Sheree Thomas
  • Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology Mar 20, 2018 by Leslie J. Anderson and C.A. Barrett
  • The Colored Lens: Winter 2018 Jan 2, 2018 by Michael Best and Michelle Kaseler
  • New Voices 004: July-August 2018 (Short Story Fiction Anthology) by C. C. Brower
  • The Attractive American Science Fiction and Fantasy: Classic Science Fiction Stories For New Generation Reader in Future Aug 30, 2018 by Annie Corol
  • The Best of the Best Horror of the Year: 10 Years of Essential Short Horror Fiction Paperback – October 2, 2018 by Ellen Datlow
  • Beyond the Stars: Unimagined Realms: a space opera anthology Aug 22, 2018 by Patrice Fitzgerald
  • Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction Kindle Edition Sep 4, 2018 by Irene Gallo
  • Great American Science Fiction Short Stories: Stories from the Golden Age (Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories Collection) Aug 19, 2018 by Kimmy Hammond
  • Hues of Hubris: Stories from the Age of Turbulence (2018 Bay Area Teen Writers Anthology) (Volume 4) Mar 7, 2018 by Shu-Hsien Ho and Royd Hatta
  • Flash Fiction Online March 2018 Feb 27, 2018 by Maria Haskins and Samantha Murray
  • FTL, Y’all! August 28, 2018 by Amanda Lafrenais
  • The Best & Attractive Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Amazing & Greatest Science Fiction Stories Collection for All Time Aug 3, 2018 by Connie Lawley
  • The Colored Lens: Summer 2018 July 17, 2018 by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
  • Mystery!: The Origins Game Fair 2018 Anthology Jun 18, 2018 by Chantelle Aimée Osman and Donald J. Bingle
  • The Colored Lens: Spring 2018 Apr 3, 2018 by H. Pueyo and Imogen Cassidy
  • Terra! Tara! Terror! (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 24) Sep 30, 2018 by Juliana Rew
  • Galileo’s Theme Park (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 23) Jun 15, 2018 by Juliana Rew
  • Monstrosities (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 22) Mar 10, 2018 by Juliana Rew
  • Flash Fiction Online January 2018 by Suzanne Vincent
  • The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin: A Library of America Special Publication Oct 9, 2018 by Lisa Yaszek
  • Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 Aug 7, 2018 by Jane Yolen

Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

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