Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

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This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

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This novel is hard SF/adventure and was published by Solaris on October 15, 2019. It is #2 in the series, following The Quantum Magician, and runs 300 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

The Scarecrow shares the information he’s gathered on Belarius Arjona and his involvement in the recent Sub-Saharan Union’s rebellion and attack on the Congregate. In response, the Congregate defies the Banks and the Plutocracy and nukes the Garret, asteroid home of 4000 bioengineered Homo quantus. Arjona and Cassie Mejia are doing research on the wormhole system from their new inflation racer The Calculated Risk. The AI St. Matthew interrupts to let them know about the problem, and Arjona and Mejia make a plan to use the stolen time gates in the hold of The Calculated Risk to go back in time and rescue the population from the Garret. They lease and refit freighters, take them back in time and rescue everyone in the Garret that will leave with them. Homo quantus has been considered a failed genetic experiment, but suddenly their military potential is apparent, and the Scarecrow reclassifies them as bioweapons. Arjona and Mejia decide they need to hide the Homo quantus somewhere in their expanded wormhole system where they won’t be found. But their research on it isn’t complete—they need historical data in order to calibrate their model and plot courses. Arjona approaches Lieutenant-General Rudo and Colonel Ayen Iekanjika of the Union with a plan to go back in time and collect data from the planetoid Nyanga, offering the location of unknown wormholes in the Union’s Bachwezi system in trade. Rudo and Iekanjika are angry that Arjona stole their time gates, but Rudo agrees anyway. The Scarecrow is hot on their trail. Can Arjona, St. Matthew and Iekanjika obtain the data they need and successfully return without creating a paradox and changing the timeline of history?

This summary is a massive over-simplification, of course. As in The Quantum Magician, Künsken’s strong suit here is the science, all projected and highly plausible. The author comes up with entertaining applications; for example, where Cassie leads the Scarecrow on a chase through the multiple dimensions of a wormhole, and then doubles back for an inspired and unconventional attack. The entertaining Homo eridanus Stills is back for this installment, cursing in several languages as he brokers Arjona’s deal and then serves as the pilot to Nyanga-in-the-past. Most of the drama in the story falls on Iekanjika, who has to figure out the politics of the Union in its early days and decide what to do about causality in the timeline, while Arjona wanders off, stressing about a quantum intelligence on the planetoid that’s fated for extinction. Nobody is especially happy with each other by the end of this, so I’m expecting the story will continue as they work out their issues.

I had a few complaints about The Quantum Magician, but Künsken has fixed most of those issues here. There’s no real hook for the story, just an argument at the beginning, but the action line goes up sharply when the Congregate ship fires on the Garret, and it remains pretty gripping the rest of the way through. This is strongly plotted, the characters are fairly well-rounded and it’s strongly diverse. Künsken presents the ever-interesting Stills to fill the mid-novel slump some authors experience, and things get pretty intense as Iekanjika realizes the truth about the people she’s dealing with on Nyanga. I also have a fair idea what Bel and Cassie look like at this point, though I still didn’t get a good description. They’re bioengineered from Afro-Columbian stock, so have dark skin, hair and eyes. Arjona isn’t black enough to pass for the Shona stock of the Union, though, and has to darken his skin to pass. Besides that, Stills calls him “fancypants,” from which everyone will have to draw their own conclusions.

Highly recommended, especially for science geeks.

Five stars.

Review of Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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This is a science fiction/fantasy/horror novella published by Tor in May of 2018. According to the description it’s “the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original,” and leaning to Lovecraftian horror. The original chapbook was published in 2013 by Subterranean Press, and this version runs 208 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Near Deer Isle, off the coast of New England, a fallen star has poisoned the sea. Authorities evacuate everyone they can, blow up the bridge and fire rockets from Black Hawk helicopters, but still fail to stop the Great Old Ones from rising out of the sea. The agent Ptolema waits at a pub in Dublin for agents from the other side, who have maybe turned, but maybe not. When they arrive, she plays a recording that alarms them. In a later meeting, one of the agents identifies the important characters in the recording as psychiatrist Dr. Twisby and albino twins. The twins, Bête and Ivorie, are the result of sadistic experiments, lovers, and maybe entangled quantum particles on the run in a chaotic universe. Ptolema later assassinates the two agents she spoke with. Twisby has Ivorie killed, collapsing the twin souls into Bête. Years later, the White Woman drops the vial that poisons the sea.

On the positive side, this seems to have a theme. The agents apparently represent chaos versus order, playing a symbolic chess game with butterfly effects through the years. There are layers of post-modern symbolism where we encounter various literary allusions, a chess game, quantum entanglements and a time loop. The characters are very well developed, and given a recognizable conflict to work with, might actually be likable. The author provides chapter headings that describe place and time—somewhat helpful to track the way this skips around.

On the not so positive side, this has serious readability issues. The story gets off to a promising start with Ptolema and the two agents in Dublin, but after that, it pretty much collapses into chaos. Although there are a couple of linear threads that weave through it, most of the chapters seem nonsensical and unrelated; put together, they achieve no apparent meaning. Be prepared to break out your French language; one chapter is written almost entirely in French. There’s some gratuitous sickness here, too, where a production company streams seppuku type suicides. (The victim hesitates, maybe not sedated enough…) Ick.

Two stars.

Review of The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

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This novella is an urban fantasy police procedural released by Subterranean Press in May of 2019. It is part of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series and runs 169 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The setting is Trier, Germany’s oldest city. A dog walker finds a man dead of noble rot, a fungus used in wine production, and circumstances are enough out of the ordinary that local authorities call the Abteilung KDA, a branch of the German Federal Criminal Police that handles supernatural issues. Investigator Tobias Winter, called in from holiday, plans to get there, deal with the problem, and get out with the minimum of paperwork. He teams up with local police representative Vanessa Sommer, and their investigation quickly links the victim with the Stracker vineyards, a pair of river goddesses and a middle-aged men’s social club. There seem to be a lot of issues left unresolved over the last couple of centuries. Can Winter and Sommer make sense of it all?

Good points: This should please fans of police procedurals. The characters are well rounded and have backstories, and the plot is intricate enough that it takes some investigating to find out what old ghosts everyone is hiding. There are a couple of plot twists that change the direction of the investigation, keeping interest up, and the mystery has a satisfactory conclusion. The German setting is different for an urban fantasy, though Aaronovitch admits to making up the vineyard, and the writing style is entertaining. There are some wry ironies lurking in there.

Not so good points: This doesn’t develop a lot of suspense, and the action line is fairly flat until a bump at the end. I didn’t get a strong impression of what the countryside looks like. Also, as the investigation takes shape, it’s fairly clear what is going on, if not who they’re looking for–so somewhat predictable. It’s a good book to curl up with on a rainy day, but not a really exciting read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

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I was sort of taken by “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a finalist on the 2019 Nebula ballot, so I went looking for more of Yudhanjaya’s work. This novel was originally self-published in 2017 and runs 300 pages. It was the winner of the 2017 Virtual FantasyCon Award. Yudhanjaya is Shri Lankan and has worked as a programmer, tech journalist and social researcher. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 2030 and Patrick Udo lives in Chicago where automation means jobs are scarce. At his mother’s funeral, he meets Julius Common, who wants his father to do marketing and publicity for NumberCorp. About the same time, Patrick’s banking app asks him to log in with his number and UN-ID, and to supply social media accounts. When he checks to see what’s behind the app, it’s NumberCorp, a six billion dollar financial tech company based in Silicon Valley. The UN-ID is a global blockchain-based ID system, and the number rates your social worth. Fascinated, Patrick takes the job instead of his dad, where he goes to work in the Communications department. They do battle with Facebook and win, go on to capture America. Patrick is transferred to a project in Sri Lanka, where he helps launch the number in South-East Asia, then Europe. Patrick becomes the company’s man as they launch campaigns to take India and China. The number will build a new world order, but is what they’re doing right?

This book isn’t exactly a page turner, but it’s well-written, inquiring and a little scary. It’s the flip side of Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope , but instead of the protagonist looking at the elitist rating system from the outside, Udo works for the company that’s building it. The plotting, world building and characterizations here are excellent, as the author outlines the people, events and campaigns that build the company into world dominance, and then shows its dark underbelly. Another item of interest: Although this is initially based in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have an America-centric feel. Instead, it’s very global. Commons is an immigrant, and much of the story takes place in Europe and Asia. It ends, as it began, with the UN.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much of an action line here. The story just cooks along at a leisurely pace as the characters interact and the company mounts various campaigns that finally prevail. What is probably the climax passes, and Yudhanjaya, maybe needing to fill out more length for the manuscript, adds articles at the end that Udo wrote about the founder Julius Commons. In the end, this just gives you something scary to think about.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of The Glass Cannon by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novella is science fiction from Lee’s collection Hexarchate Stories and picks up the main plot just after Revenant Gun ends. The collection is published by Solaris and runs about 400 pages. The novella is billed as Machineries of Empire Book 4 and follows Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun. This review contains spoilers.

Hexarch Kujin is dead, but he’s left Shuos Jedeo in pieces. Ajewen Cheris, now retired from the Kel and hiding out as a simple math teacher on Esrala, still holds most of his memories. The newly resurrected Jedeo sort-of-clone remains memory deficient and is the guest (a.k.a. prisoner) of Hexarch Mikodez. Mikodez seems to be keeping Jedeo around 1) because he’s not sure how to destroy him, and 2) because Mikodez wants to know why Kujen’s command moth mutinied at Terebeg. Jedeo is restless, tortured by his lack of memory about the 400 and some years of his existence, so he conspires with the servitor Hemiola to escape and find Cheris, hoping that will answer some of his questions. He finds Cheris at her home on Esrala and demands to have his memories back. His arrival triggers troops that try to stop them, and the two fight their way out, while Jedeo explores the capabilities he gets from being made from a moth. Cheris and Jedeo escape in the needlemoth Jedeo has stolen and head for Kujen’s Avros Base where Cheris expects to find equipment she needs to aid in the transfer. Can they get inside the base? Successfully transfer the memories? What are they going to do about the bloodthirsty needlemoth, whose harness is now damaged? And has Mikodez been tracking them all this time?

This piece features Lee’s signature strong plotting, wry humor and lively imagery, only less so because it’s a shorter piece. This doesn’t fix the loose ends left at the end of Revenant Gun, but it does get us a little further down the road. Lee seems to be terrific at leaving those loose ends, so I expect this will be a never-ending series. The issue with Kujen is (maybe) done, and the survivors have successfully established a new order, but now they’re about to be faced with a revolt from both the moths and the servitors. This serves them right, of course, because they’ve been enslaving these beings for a long time. Plus, we now see Jedeo reintegrated as himself, with the additional powers he’s gained from being created from a moth. If he was dangerous before, he’s now even more of a weapon. Plus, he and Cheris seem to have ironed out their differences and joined forces.

On the not so positive side, this felt a little messy. The young Jedeo mostly throws himself at things instead of thinking, and Cheris/Jedeo just lets him take the punishment. This works, of course, because of Jedeo’s moth-derived body, but it still comes across as sort of stupid on his part. He doesn’t regenerate immediately, and he’s taking a risk that someone/something will figure out how to kill him. After all, we know that moths CAN be killed. A bunch of them died in the last book. Plus, there seems to be an excess of pain and torture here, as if Lee is catering to fans who enjoy it–and there’s a touch of humor about it that feels unhealthy. And last, Jedeo is in danger of losing his dignity as the author jerks him around through all these manipulations. I like him because he’s human, dangerous and effective, not because he’s a travesty and a puppet.

Four stars.

Are Personal Attacks Protected by Law?

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While I looking through the various developments on the efforts to silence speech, I came across some interesting cases related to “free speech” that I’d like to review. In explanation, the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees speech free from government interference. There are a few limitations to this; for example, when you’re a government employee. However, the First Amendment doesn’t cover speech in the private sector. That means employees are subject to the policy of their employer as far as speech goes. Also, “public” persons are subject to more stringent standards in libel or defamation lawsuits and have to show malice, rather than just negligence in order to win damages.

Looking at the cases, the NRA vs. San Francisco Board of Supervisors suit is fairly straight-forward. It’s about infringement of constitutional rights because the Board of Supervisors is a government entity. That means the NRA, in their suit, is charging the San Francisco government is interfering with their ability to advocate for their political views (okay, plus defamation).

Here’s a a more complex and interesting suit that’s currently working its way through the courts in Virginia. Edward Tayloe is currently party to a lawsuit to preserve Confederate statues in the Charlottesville downtown. University professor and activist Jalane Schmidt provided quotes to a local newspaper article in which she called Tayloe a “slavery apologist,” among other things. Tayloe responded with a defamation suit claiming Schmidt wrongly portrayed him as a racist, which hurt his reputation and his ability to do business in the city. Although Schmidt works for a government entity (a state university), the Virginia Department of Risk Management found the case fell outside of the scope of her employment. The ACLU stepped in to defend her and filed for a dismissal, arguing Schmidt’s speech is covered by the First Amendment, and labeling the suit a SLAPP (a strategic lawsuit against public participation). The motion also notes that Schmidt’s statements are opinion, “a well-protected category of speech.”

So, is any “opinion” you express about a person protected by law? Does this allow open season for personal attacks (a.k.a. author bullying)? Can you call anyone you don’t like a racist (for example) and damage their career (as a writer, for example)? This has recently developed into a common problem in publishing, especially in the Young Adult market, where “fans” attack books as racist to get them pulled from publication. Should this kind of action be protected speech?

Of course, there are limits on personal attacks. Some kinds of speech are not protected. In 2017 an online argument about gaming escalated to “swatting” that resulted in an innocent person’s death. Understandably, the person who initiated the call to police was convicted of charges including interstate threats and involuntary manslaughter, but two other gamers who were involved in the argument were also convicted of felony conspiracy. A similar incident happened in 2015 when Lou Antonelli swatted David Gerrold after an argument on the Hugo Awards. Luckily this incident was resolved without fatalities.

So, have personal attacks become an acceptable pattern of expression in the current political climate? Do people even realize when they’ve doing it? Should verbal bullying be protected speech?

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