A Bit of Shameless Self Promotion

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First, I’m featured at File 770 as a “Masked Filer” reading Star*line, journal of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. Did anyone know I sometimes write poetry?

LB reading

Next, I have a new book coming out. It looks like the ebook is already up for sale on Amazon, and the paperback is scheduled for a wider release PDQ.

Here’s the blurb below and the link to Amazon. I’ll send out a free efile copy for reviewers. Let me know if you’d like to do one!

Anna Detroyer is a Black Seminole and a spirit talker, which means she deals with the supernatural. Along with her business partner Paul Angstrom, she runs a private detective agency in Miami, Florida, where the two of them investigate unusual cases. Anna is in love with Paul, but lately he’s been keep in distance between them. When a job in Mexico goes wrong, he pulls out of the business entirely, leaving Anna scrambling to pay the bills. To make matters worse, Paul’s son Joel arrives from the Northwest. Can Anna keep the business going? Can she stay out of trouble with the supernatural? And last, can she ever untangle her love life?

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Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

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This novel is science fiction/historical fantasy, published by Orbit in April of 2019, and runs 325 pages. It’s apparently successful enough to have triggered a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, upcoming in August 2020. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains major spoilers.

Orhan is a colonel in the corp of engineers, normally employed in building bridges and repairing aqueducts. He’s a former slave and a minority in the country, often at odds with authority, but adept at corruption—the sort of lying and cheating that is necessary to deal with the government supply lines. After a surprise attack in the city of Classis, he gets crosswise with authority figures, so takes his crew into the hinterlands to work on a bridge. When they return to the base at Colophon, Orhan finds the city under siege, the fleet blocked, the army decimated, the emperor non-functional, and himself the ranking officer in the city. Oops. Can he take control, put together a resistance from the panicked residents and design some quick engines for defense? And once he knows who’s behind the attack on the city, can he deal with the issues there?

On the positive side, this is wry and sharply entertaining. It’s written in first person and Orhan has a totally cynical view of government, petty tyrants and red tape. He’s also good at working all the angles; plus a solid engineer when it comes to building bridges and siege tech. He has a daughter that provides an emotional touch. The theme is also a standout. The subtext here is about racism and slavery, but the author has turned this backward from what we see in US society. Orhan is a milkface, brought by slavers into a country of dark-skinned bluebloods. He suffers discrimination and has a slight chip on his shoulder about the whole thing that affects his interactions. Regardless, he chooses to carry on with his responsibilities, trying hard to save his adopted city from a siege brought by what turns out to be another former slave out for revenge. This is subtle, but feels downright subversive to me in today’s political climate. Enough so that I looked up Orbit. It’s owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.

On the less positive side, there are a few minor issues. First, this has a slight mid-novel slump. It is highly entertaining during the set up, but once the defense organization within the city is up and running, there’s little for the residents to do except fight amongst themselves. This is messy and fails to produce any real furtherance of the story. The identity of Orhan’s daughter is revealed fairly late in the novel, which requires reinterpretation of events. And last, the dissonance in the slavery theme comes from Orhan’s parleys with his opponent, the former slave, but the light treatment here undermines the drama built up through the whole book to this point—this is the place where Orhan has to do some serious soul-searching about his race and position in society and for the author to make us wonder whether he’s going to support the society he lives in or tear it down. Still, the understatement is probably necessary because this is such a hot-button topic. In the era of cancel culture, somehow this novel has gone totally under the radar.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

More on Wealth and Power

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Most people who gain wealth and power have followed some kind of career path that gives them the skills to be successful in holding onto it. However, there’s an alternate path to wealth and power that involves behaviors we generally consider morally corrupt. It’s a scenario where the end always justifies the means, and favors are more important than qualifications and skill.

Looking again at the currently popular theme of killing people and taking over their wealth and power, it can be tricky to transfer these without documents, so what the authors are having the protagonists do is resort to fraud to carry it off. There’s a long tradition in fiction of romantic thieves who make their living through trickery and clever heists, but somehow this feels different. It’s as if the authors are advising readers to cut corners to get what they want. This signals a shift in moral standards.

Examples: In The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, the protagonist January kills her benefactor William Cornelius Locke and forges documents to take over his estate so she can live in comfort and have what she wants. In Network Effect by Martha Wells, ART’s crew is forging documents to dispute ownership of worlds and displace the corporate owners. Both these instances are presented as matter-of-fact and justified because of systemic bias, therefore the right thing to do. So, is moral corruption now the approved method to achieve our various causes?

Of course, corruption has always been there in human interactions. Moral corruption is the whole basis of organized crime, which uses violence, assault, murder, extortion, and fraud to build wealth and power. These tactics also have a bad tendency to creep into politics, where the stakes for wealth and power are similarly high. The US has laws against corruption, but various investigations and charges signal that it is fairly common and ongoing in politics. Somehow it is just there, strongly associated with people who achieve positions where they see the opportunities to capture or launder money and make deals to benefit their own personal interests.

So, is this one of the opportunities that women (or minorities) have been missing in their quest for wealth and power? Is that why authors are now pointing it out as a morally justified activity? It’s true that women have a complex association with corruption. Historically they have often attached to corrupt and powerful men to share in their spoils. Research shows that (at least in democracies) more women in business and politics tends to be associated with lower levels of corruption. Plus, women see the opportunities differently. For example, women tend to evaluate the risk of corrupt behaviors more carefully than men, and may take a bribe and not follow through on the deal. This makes them less trustworthy for anyone who is offering corruption, and turns out to mean that men are approached with more and better deals. However, when there are no penalties, everybody seems equally corrupt.

On the one hand, we’ve got a human tendency to corruption, and on the other an unspoken assumption that our society has rules against corruption, and that this is the moral high ground. The question is which we’re going to choose, and where we’re going to draw the line. Another consideration is how we justify morally corrupt behaviors to ourselves and whether this is actually exculpatory. Is it okay for someone to (allegedly) lie about sexual assault for monetary or political gain as Tara Reade and Christine Blasey Ford have been accused of doing? Is it okay for somebody to manufacture a racial hate crime like Jussie Smollett or racial profiling like Rev. Jerrod Moultrie? Is it okay for Sherita Dixon-Cole to lie that Officer Daniel Hubbard sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop because of the need for police reform? These charges are consonant with political causes, so does that justify lying to manufacture incidents? Is this now the best way to get the power for the changes we want? Or not?

Charlie Jane Anders checked in with her opinion earlier this year. In City in the Middle of the Night, all the grand causes fail because corruption degrades the new order the same as the old. Would choosing a different path to wealth and power make a difference in the results?

Statement from SFWA on Black Lives Matter and Protests

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The SFWA issued this statement after the recent protests. I thought it bears reblogging:

“We give lip service to acceptance, as though acceptance were enough.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

People ask how worlds like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower can exist. It happens through the slow creep of power aided by the complacency of those shielded by their position in society.

It is not enough to have an anti-harassment policy and call that good. We must work for equity and diversity to make sure that underrepresented voices are heard, to increase inclusion in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, in the larger ecosystem of publishing, in our writing community, and in life.

We support Black Lives Matter and the protesters who are seeking justice for centuries of white supremacy and police brutality.

We acknowledge that SFWA has historically ignored and, in too many instances, reinforced the injustices, systemic barriers, and unaddressed racism, particularly toward Black people, that have contributed to this moment. We have allowed those who spoke for change in SFWA to be drowned out by those who clung to the status quo. We have a responsibility to admit our failings and to continually commit to dismantling these oppressive and harmful systems, both within this organization and ourselves.

“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”

― N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became

These are the actions that SFWA is taking as first steps to clean our own house and work towards making our community safer for Black writers.

For the month of June, 100% of registrations for the Nebula Convention content will go directly to the Carl Brandon Society and the Black Speculative Fiction Society.

We are creating a matching program for the Nebula convention so that each registration purchased this month creates a seat for a Black writer.

For the next year, we are waiving fees for SFWA membership for Black writers.

We are waiving registration fees for next year’s Nebula conference attendance for Black writers.

We are creating a travel fund to help defer the costs of Black writers attending the Nebula conference

We are committing to reaching out to Black-led science fiction and fantasy organizations about applying for the additional grant money that we have available.

For those who wish to learn more about what you can do to help, here is a list of resources:

An Antiracist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi

We Need Diverse Books Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Inclusion

Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (from ALA’s Public Programming Office’s Great Stories Club)

List of Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners (books for children and young adults)

People of Color in Publishing

Many of us are feeling helpless in the face of racist terror, but there are ways for all of us to do our part with the time, money, and resources we have available. Our choices matter now more than ever. What we know from writing science fiction and fantasy is that the present we find ourselves in was avoidable but our nation chose not to avoid it. We can still choose a just and equal future, if we work together as a community to dismantle white supremacy.

If you wish to donate to organizations or causes, Black Lives Matter has curated a list of organizations that could use your support. In addition to those, these groups are part of the science fiction and fantasy community.

Black Science Fiction Society

FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

Carl Brandon Society

Black Tribbles

People of Color in Publishing

I Need Diverse Games

We Need Diverse Books

Let us know about additional resources that we can add to these lists.

Unanimously signed,

The Board of Directors of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

The Myth of Family versus Factory Farms in SFF Stories

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Okay, one more rant in this series and then I’m done. There seems to be a myth out there about the pastoral family farm. Martha Wells uses this to describe Preservation’s economy, and I’m sure she’s right on the current zeitgeist. It’s more about that yearning to live a free life in a kind, caring, socialist economy that takes care of everybody (including animals) and provides the kind of safe food supply the US enjoyed in the pre-world war years.

This theme is a reflection of real life movements concerned about the welfare of animals crammed into crowded pens on factory farms. There are also concerns about disease in this system, and how quickly it can spread in crowded conditions. Activist groups are currently taking action on bills to limit factory farming in the US as a proposed method of “ protecting the food supply” from pandemics like coronavirus, apparently trying to make the association between these farms and the wet markets in China where animals are slaughtered onsite.

About 99% of US farm animals live on factory farms, and this isn’t unusual. Global studies suggest that about 90% of farm animals are raised on factory farms worldwide. So, if factory farms were banned, then a possible 99% of the meat supply would disappear off the US grocery store shelves.

Could we go to a vegetable or grain-based food supply instead? It’s definitely more efficient and cost-effective. Currently about 33% of corn produced in the US goes for animal feed, and about 40% goes to ethanol production. Only about 1.6% goes to bread and cereal products. US wheat looks slightly better: 36% percent is consumed domestically by humans, 50% is exported, and 10% is used for livestock feed, Couldn’t we add soy and turn these grains into burgers, instead?

The truth is that grain is also produced on factory farms. US grains are often genetically modified (GMO), leading to varieties that produce well, but may cause unknown health problems. Grains are also subject to disease, though generally fungus and not viruses like swine flu or coronavirus. Crops like grain, lentils and soybeans are often spraying with glyphosate (Roundup) to desiccate the green parts before harvesting. This after earlier spraying with insecticides to control pests. This means grain and vegetables from factory farms are often contaminated with chemicals that can cause cancer and affect hormones. You can see where the issue about factory farms is coming from.

So, is there any way to make the small family farm work again as the major US food supplier? The truth is that the small family farm has been in trouble for a long time. Most of them run in the red, and small farmers have to have second jobs that pay the taxes and actually support the family. Regardless, these small farms still produce about 27% of the US food supply. Can we get by on that? Probably not.

The issues are land available, profitability and population. About 44% of US land is currently available for agriculture, and many small family farms are gone, bought up for housing developments. Farming is also what’s called in economics a perfect competition, which means that profits often go down as production goes up. In 1900, the population of the US was about 76 million, and about 60% lived in rural areas and grew their own food. Today the population is about 273 million and only about 18% live in rural areas. That means it will be hard to create small family farms again, and to make them profitable. Next, would this system be able to produce enough food for the current US population? Not without major changes. So, trying to limit factory farms is a questionable goal without having a backup plan.

This also means that writers should take a second look at that idea of the bucolic economy supported by small family farms. It will only work if the population is small and most people provide their own food supply. This will not be a highly profitable economy. Small farmers have less capital to buy equipment and they lose the economy of scale advantage that large farms have in planting crops. That means everyone will need to work in the fields. Farming is not a leisure activity unless you have, maybe, a lot of bots that do the dirty work for you. That’s a big investment, too. Maybe illegal aliens instead? They work for low wages.

Why can’t governments just print money and give it to everybody?

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Some of the discussion following recent reviews is about the current socialist versus capitalist theme of the novels, stories, etc., so I’m feeling like basic economics warrants a blog post. This a big subject, and I can’t cover it all in a short post, but I’ll supply some links and recommend further reading.

I suspect the prevalence of this theme is a reaction to decades-long trends in real life, where government policy in the US, for example, has favored wealthy capitalists and made accumulation of wealth harder for the poor and middle class. After WWII, many developed countries got rich from financing the rebuilding, which benefitted both the US capitalist system and the middle class, but by about 1960, this advantage started to bottom out. Then in the 1980s the Soviet Union collapsed. This was the major socialist challenge to capitalism in the post-war years. The collapse seemed to validate the US system of capitalism, and left the US as the major global economic power. This encouraged further expansion of capitalism though deregulation and world politics.

Production has moved from the US to Africa and Asia in search of less regulation and lower labor costs, and increasing automation in the US is also causing reduced opportunity for workers. Young middle-class workers are burdened by student loans, and good jobs are hard to come by. As a result, there’s been a movement toward socialism in the US, and calls for taxing the wealthy to provide everyone a basic income. This is not a new idea. The UK tried taxing the rich, and the wealthy just moved out of the UK. That means there will be problems with it in the US, too. See article on various countries’ experiences with socialism here.

So why does a government have to tax anybody? Why can’t a government just print more money and use it to provide everyone a basic income regardless of whether they have a job? The answer is that printing money without supporting it with increased economic activity devalues money and causes huge price inflation. You’re used to paying a certain amount for groceries, and if more people have money to buy groceries, then supplies drop and the price goes up. Eventually the supply will catch up and the market come back into balance, but the price of everything has gone up the same way, and now your money isn’t worth what it used to be worth. Also, if you’ve been saving for something (investment, college, old age), the value of savings drops during inflation, so you lose the results of your labor. See article on inflation here.

Economic systems are part of world building for speculative fiction, so let’s look at a few from history. The simplest is hunter/gatherer societies. Early humans did this, and as late as the 1800s it was still good for Native Americans that followed the buffalo herds, for example. However, this only works when there’s plenty of wild bounty to support everybody. When things get scarce, then you lose too much in wars trying to protect your interests. The next step for a society is agriculture and animal husbandry. This means you can accumulate wealth in the value of produce and herds, and this generally results in a barter system, where you can trade chickens for blacksmith work, for example. The problem is that this generates something like a feudal system, sharecropping and wars over ownership of the land. Plus, cattle herds are too bulky for saving in a treasury and they tend to die in a disaster. This means you need a safe medium of exchange, often gold, that’s easy to carry and store. That way you can set the value of a cow to one gold coin, or whatever, and everyone agrees to abide by this policy. Eventually gold gets too heavy to carry around, so nations go to paper money backed by gold, and then maybe just the strength of the economic activity. From there, the next step is to electronic transfer of funds by cards, phone apps, etc. Regardless, this remains a store of the value of your economic activity. It can’t be replaced with funds that aren’t backed by economic activity without disruptions in prices and the supply of goods. Exchange rates between countries reflect the value of their economic systems. See article on the history of money here.

Next, economic analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries.

Review of “Home” by Martha Wells

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Pre-orders of Wells’ novel Network Effect came with a bonus short story titled “Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory.” This was released 5 May 2020 (I guess) by Tor, and I don’t have a page count, but it runs pretty short. This review contains spoilers.

Preservation Planetary Leader Ayda Mensah is suffering from PTSD from her recent experiences: first in GrayCris’s effort to murder her survey crew, and then being kidnapped and held as a bargaining chip at their corporate headquarters. The resulting highly dangerous escape and chase by Palisade didn’t help much, either. As the story opens, Ayda is in a discussion with Ephriam, council member and past-planetary leader about the wisdom of bringing a “product of corporate surveillance capitalism and authoritarian enforcement to the seat of our government.” He means the SecUnit Murderbot, of course. The conversation goes nowhere, but predicts similar conversations with the rest of the council. Ayda heads back to the team quarters on the station, where the team is trying to pull together their final report on the survey and make recommendations about their claim on the planet in question. Pin-Lee reviews the billing from the company and MB, always eavesdropping, realizes that Mensah has not completed the recommended trauma therapy. She leaves the team area to get more supplies for the coffee bar and encounters a strange reporter. MB is there immediately and scares the man away, reports him to station security. Waiting for security to arrive, they have a moment for a private conversation. What does Murderbot want from her?

This is a direct extension of the story contained in the MB novellas, a brief, personal glimpse of what Mensah hides behind her confident exterior, along with a review of events and what the council thinks about a SecUnit coming into Preservation space. It includes Wells’ emphasis on drama and relationships, and also subtly reveals the discrimination constructs experience, even in Preservation space, which is normally very welcoming to outsiders. Also, we get the most description of what MB looks like yet. The diaries are first person, and it doesn’t look at itself much.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering why Preservation is still considering exercise of their option on the surveyed planet when there were clearly alien remnants there. These are considered dangerous and interdicted. Also, I’m wondering what Preservation’s economy is based on that they seem so open-handed. Not only did Mensah have plenty of cash on hand to pay off the bond company’s increasing demands for bond payments in the GrayCris debacle, but it looks like lots of things there are provided free, including fairly comfortable lodging for travelers in a station that must have limited space. Economics rules, and nothing is ever really free.

Interestingly, this seems to come direct from the author’s keyboard, unedited and unproofed. It’s full of errors, including mis-spelled names. Ha.

Four stars.

Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews

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That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

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This science fiction/fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 7 May 2019 and runs 492 pages. Interestingly, McGuire says she tried to sell this book on spec, but couldn’t explain it to anybody, so had to write it to make the whole thing clear. This review contains spoilers.

Roger and Dodger are twin geniuses adopted by parents who live on different coasts. Roger’s talent is language, and Dodger’s is math. The children are quantum entangled, so by an early age, they’ve found they can talk to each other inside their heads. It’s fun to have an imaginary friend that will talk back to you, but when Roger mentions Dodger, a scary woman comes to the house and threatens to take him away from his parents. This is Leigh Barrow, an evil assistant to evil alchemist James Reed, who is churning out genetically engineering pairs of children in an attempt to achieve the Doctrine of Ethos and the Impossible City through a guide laid out in the children’s book Over the Woodward Wall by his creator A. Deborah Baker. Terrified, Roger withdraws from his interactions with Dodger, but later he actually meets her at a chess tournament. They somehow both end up attending Berkeley, and soon start to realize they’re really brother and sister and a possibly dangerous combination. Meanwhile, Reed is getting impatient with their slow development and thinks he has achieved a more promising and tractable pair of children. In order for that pair to fully mature, he needs to get rid of Roger and Dodger. Can they defeat him and his evil minions? And then what?

First some background: Middlegame in chess is the part of the game in between the opening and the endgame. The Doctrine of Ethos, defined by Pythagoras, is about balance, especially between language and mathematics. At the time this book was published, Over the Woodward Wall did not exist, but it is now a novella scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020, by Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker. In Middlegame, McGuire describes Baker as “the greatest alchemist in North America, spreading her calm propaganda masked as fantasy.” It’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek glimpse of the author.

The best part of this story is the developing lifetime relationship between Roger, Dodger, their parents and friends. The characterizations, for the most part, are excellent, and we feel the children’s pain of separation and loneliness as bright children, especially Dodger, who is the math genius. The author lives in the San Francisco Bay area, so we get detailed descriptions of the setting where most of the story takes place. I’ve encountered the themes and devices used here elsewhere over the last couple of years, but this is definitely a creative synthesis of what’s out there.

On the less positive side, this could be considered a thriller, but there’s not that much to the plot, and at 492 pages, it moves very slowly. The first couple of hundred pages were gripping, but I was tired before we got to the end. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the timeline changes a couple of times, so you have to accept that events are not immutable. Luckily, the pivotal events seem to be fairly enduring. The novel is a tour-de-force as far as symbolic construction goes, but eventually I think it got stuffed a little too full of themes and ideas, where the asides start to distract from the main storyline. Reed, Barrow and the association of alchemists are only sketched in, when they might have been used to provide a stronger power struggle underlying the story. The pathway supposedly outlined in the children’s story remains totally vague, and the absurdist references to this eventually detract from the seriousness of the story. There’s a lot here, from advice to bright children, to finding balance, to maintaining your own ethics, to fighting evil, to understanding what to do with power. Although it has a science fictional framework, the inclusion of undefined alchemy and the powers granted by achieving the Doctrine of Ethos give it a strong fantasy feel.

Four and a half stars.

Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards, a stand-alone novel written in the universe of the Wayfarer series. It was published 3 September 2019 by Harper Voyager/Hodder & Stoughton and is billed as 176 pages, but it looks more like 136 in the ebook. There’s an extensive acknowledgement section and “exclusive content” at the end that is an interview Chambers conducted with her (mom) science consultant, Nikki Chambers, an astrobiology researcher and educator in Southern California, that makes up the rest of the advertised length.

It’s the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is part of the Lawki 6 team sent to explore exoplanets. The team has an assigned itinerary, and spends the time between arrivals in torpor storage where they are adaptively somatoformed so they can move freely on each particular world. Aecor has an ice crust with phosphorescent creatures that live under the ice. Mirabilis is a riot of life. Opera is terrible, fraught with storms that ultimately prevent them leaving the ship. Votum is tidally locked and at first appears deserted, but they find caves that hold secrets. Somewhere along the way Lawki 6 has stopped receiving bulletins from Earth. The team receives a final transmission from Lawki 5, damaged and attempting to land on Earth, but then nothing else. Is there any reason to continue their mission?

For anyone who’s wondering, this title is from a quote by UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim, 1977, recorded on the Voyager Golden Record as a message to any sentients who might intercept the interstellar probe.

I’d rate this story moderately high on the hardness scale because of the projections and the amount of real science that’s included, and as is usual with Chambers’ work, this contains a pretty big emotional wallop. The characters include two men and two women, with one of the men maybe trans, but this is only hinted and remains respectfully private and unclear. All characters are appealing and they respect each other, getting along with a minimum of conflict. The group is immersed in work they love and they experience the joy of discovery, but the mission turns dark when they start to suspect something bad has gone wrong on Earth. Besides this, Chambers engineers traumatic events in the mission that strongly affect the team members’ mental health.

On the less positive side, this probably needs a trigger warning because of its representation of murder, depression and attempted suicide. I would also have liked to read more on the ethics of killing aliens. The issue is given as cut and dried here, but it looks like a huge philosophical problem to me. The story also leaves us with an inconclusive ending. In the scenario provided, there’s no way around the team being stuck. It looks like a return to Earth might be a poor idea. They could extend their mission, but eventually they will run out of fuel. This raises the question of how they’re getting around. I’m just not sure the technology for a mission like this would be based on fuel that runs out. Shouldn’t the ship be at least nuclear powered?

Four stars.

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