Review of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It is apparently Martine’s debut novel, and is listed as #1 in this series, suggesting we’ll see more on the same topic. It was published by Tor on 26 March 2019 and runs 472 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the multi-system Teixcalaani Empire. She has been dispatched in haste, and her imago implant holding the memories of her predecessor is hastily installed and out of date. When she arrives, she finds political unrest related to the Emperor’s impending death and a planned expansion war that will annex Lsel Station. Besides that, the previous ambassador Yskander Aghvan has apparently been assassinated, and Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass seem to be next on the list. With the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, Mahit threads her way through the politics, where it becomes clear Yskander made inappropriate deals with the Emperor Six Direction, plus political heavyweights in the succession fight, Minister Nineteen Adze, opposition leader Thirty Larkspur and General One Lightning. Mahit’s imago fails, apparently because of sabotage from back home, and she receives frightening messages that Lsel Station pilots have encountered alien spacecraft—apparently the leading edge of some other inimical space empire. Is there a way Mahit can sort through the mess, straighten out her imago and save Lsel Station from annexation?

This is an impressive space opera intrigue, strongly plotted, with highly complex world building and attractive, well-developed characters. There’s a solid political structure and workable economics underlying the empire versus the independent mining stations, and notable cultural differences between the practical Lsel Station and the Empire, which seems highly literate and given to layered, nuanced communications framed in poetic verse. There are shocks and speed bumps, of course, but Mahit manages to sort out the issues, and at the end of the book is headed back to Lsel Station, apparently to report to the Council and confront Councilors Darj Tarats and Aknel Amnardbat about the sabotaged imago. This signals where the next book might lead.

On the less positive side, I had an issue with the imago timeline. The implant Mahit is given on the Station is fifteen years out of date, but after it fails, she experiences flashes of memory that seem more recent. I thought maybe the implant had picked up some of the dead Yskander’s memories when Mahit viewed his preserved body, but given later events, this doesn’t seem likely. So, either I’ve misunderstood the timeline or else this is just unexplained. Next, I’m a bit surprised that Mahit has only a single liaison for staff—considering her position and the political unrest, it seems she ought to have a security force, at least. And last, Mahit develops a sexual interest in Three Seagrass, her liaison and junior staff member. In the age of #MeToo, this is romantic, but also definitely transgressive, and the narrative skims over it. Mahit doesn’t even seem to repent for overstepping her bounds.

This will likely seem slow and boring to action-adventure space opera fans, but it’s highly recommended for the poetic at heart.

Five stars.

Review of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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This dark fantasy/science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 10 September 2019 by Tor.com and runs 437 pages. This is Book #1 of The Locked Tomb Trilogy. The second installment, Harrow the Ninth, is scheduled for release in June of 2020, to be followed by the third, Alecto the Ninth. This review contains spoilers.

The God Emperor has the need of new Lyctors for his service. As a result, he has called on each of the Nine Houses to send a necromancer heir with their cavalier to the First House for evaluation. The decrepit Ninth House that guards the Tomb only has one necromancer, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and no available cavalier, so they draft the only possible candidate, Gideon the Ninth. She was a foundling that somehow survived a pestilence that killed all the other children of her generation before Harrowhark was born, and the two hate each other’s guts. Harrowhark swears Gideon to silence to keep her mouth shut, provides her with appropriate black robes and skull face paint, and they arrive at the First House as expected, along with the other candidates. Gideon has no experience outside the decaying Ninth, but she starts to make tentative friends. There are no instructions on what they’re to do. Harrowhark thinks it’s a matter of research through the forgotten labs of the First House to learn talents and abilities that make one a Lyctor, but maybe it’s a competition instead, as some of the candidates start to die in horrific ways. As the field of candidates narrows, Gideon and Harrowhark start to wonder why anyone would want to be a Lyctor anyhow. Is there a way to avoid it?

This is absolutely brilliant as far as style, world-building, plotting and characterization go. The story has a science-fictional setting, as the Nine Houses circle the sun Dominicus, and are presumably planets or space habitats. The Ninth House is furthest from the sun, darkest and coldest. The God Emperor sealed the Tomb there and apparently thought the caretakers he left behind would die off, but instead they have managed to maintain a small, desperate population. It took a huge magical sacrifice to produce the brilliant Harrrowhark, which leaves her warped and burdened by guilt that spills over on Gideon. Otherwise, this is basically a mystery plot, with a final twist ending as the path to Lyctorhood is revealed. Muir credits Lissa Harris for the sword work, which stands out for detail and authenticity.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering where Gideon gets her porn magazines if Ninth is so desolate. Also, I expect the author watches a lot of horror flics, as the imagery has the feel of slightly cliché special effects. The array of characters is also somewhat stereotypical, and as a long time mystery reader, I didn’t have much trouble picking out the perp—she was just too sweet. I didn’t see the twist coming, though.

Five stars.

Review of “The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Lightspeed 4/19. This review contains spoilers.

Saki looks out the viewport at the New Mars colony site, trying to pretend that everything is fine and MJ is waiting for her there. The two of them had been planning to pursue a dream of research on an alien civilization, but the New Mars colony has collapsed, and MJ died with it. The ship’s captain is now requesting an accelerated timeline on Saki’s research into the collapse. The Chronicle is a stratified record of the universe, but visiting it muddies the record so later archronologists have less to data to work with. In the departmental meeting, Saki argues for visiting the xenoarcheology warehouse within the Chronicle rather than the medical center, expecting that an alien plague would more likely have begun there. Saki wins the argument, and she and graduate student Hyun-sik transport to the warehouse site and release drones for a preliminary investigation. Analysis of the collected data provides little information, but probes to the surface identify nanites in the soil. Saki reviews MJ’s messages, searching for a clue. His final video letter includes a shot of future Chronicle settings. Can she meet him there and find out what caused the plague? Is there a way for them to be together again?

This is billed as a love story, and it’s constructed that way, where Saki remains full of sadness for having lost her lifelove partner and father of her son Kenzou (who is dating Hyun-sik). Kenzou suggests she look around for another companion, but she’s not ready yet. The opportunity to see and talk with MJ one last time is the basis for the story. On the positive side, this affirms Kenzou and Hyun-sik’s relationship, and the investigation reveals clues to the mystery a little at a time.

On the less positive side, there are a lot of holes in this. The world-building and characterization could have used more work. The story has a SF setting, but there’s hardly any detail on the colony, how the space travel works, or who sent the ship to investigate. I would expect corporate or government sponsors with an interest in the colony, but the group on the ship seems to be an academic team funded through a research grant. The Chronicle is an alien artifact, and there’s no info on how it works or how they’ve figured out how to access it with human technology. There’s no info on where New Mars is, where the alien artifacts have come from, or where MJ got the information he tries to leave for Saki. Plus, there’s just not much drama here. I wasn’t hooked by the love story.

Three stars.

Review of “Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt

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This science fiction short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published in Clarkesworld 2/19. This review contains spoilers.

Ecological disaster is looming on Earth. Hazel is hiking from her spaceship through a barren, inhospitable landscape to the Library. As she walks, she records a message for her brother Saul, which will take six months to reach him across 32 light years. She thinks she might be the last astronaut ever and her expensive, high tech spacesuit doesn’t seem to be working very well. She sends the family her love. Despite the creaky suit, Hazel makes it to the Library and is admitted. She continues to record messages for Saul, describing the physical plant, the Archivists, and the contents of the Library. The messages give us info on first contact with explorer Librarians and how Hazel was chosen as a cheap solution (because she has an eidetic memory) to do research on possible disaster remedies at the alien Library. When Hazel finally locates the memory tablet she is looking for, the researcher Dr. Ryu appears. Rhu is pretty snippy, diagnoses Hazel as having a depressing worldview, and at first refuses to share her research. Hazel convinces her with a description of how hopeful her brother and his family are for a future with children, and reveals that she, herself, aborted a child years ago out of hopelessness. She’s not coming back to Earth. Love to the family. ‘Bye.

This is a creative format, written in second person, with everything accomplished within the messages Hazel records for her brother. What we get is adequate to describe the setting, the situation back on Earth and something of the history of how Hazel got where she is. However, this doesn’t really come alive, and the messages end up having the feel of exposition, a.k.a. info dumps. Despite the SF setting, there’s no real science in the story. The bleak setting for the Library and the presence of the Librarians is briefly explained, but none of this feels real or reasonable. For one thing, the Library has no visible means of support. Is there a spaceport somewhere, or did Hazel crash land her ship on the surface? If the world is so dead and barren, where do supplies come from? Are the Librarians creating everything out of rock? Shipping stuff in? What miracle cure does Hazel expect to find here? And how did Hazel get across 32 light years in a timely fashion? I expect the description of disasters on Earth, the revelation of Saul’s hope versus Hazel’s hopelessness, and the aborted child are all included to create an emotional thread through the story, but this didn’t capture me.

Three stars.

Review of “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne

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This science fiction short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine in March of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

The dead captain explodes at his funeral, and steerage is suspected of planting a bomb. Mey is a sin-eater on a generation ship voyaging on a search for the world Paradise. Through nanobots in her blood, she absorbs the consciousnesses of dead captains who relive their sins and try to manipulate her for their own agendas. By containing these sins, she keeps them locked away from the other inhabitants of the ship so that the voyage continues smoothly. Mey knows the captains can’t be trusted, but she is unable to communicate this—she is blocked from saying it. After the ceremony to install nanobot virtues in the new captain, Mey locates the steerage sacristy, now used as a storage room, which conceals a pile of bones and a photograph that shows the world Paradise. The ship has already been there and come away without planting a colony. The new Captain Bethen will know this. How can Mey prevail on her to give up power and admit the captains’ sins?

This is another of the artistic, difficult to follow stories that are increasingly popular. A sin-eater is a person who spiritually takes on the sins of a dead person through eating a ceremonial meal. In this case, the ceremonial meal is blood loaded with nanobots. There is something of a plot here, as well as meaning, that takes gradual shape as you work through it. It becomes clear that things are not as they should be on the ship, and values like education have fallen along the wayside. This is a dramatic scenario, where the system of nanobots frees the captain to make unhindered decisions, while the sin-eater passes judgement on the appropriateness and quality of these choices as they relate to the inhabitants of the ship. The system has gone badly wrong somewhere along the line, and Mey needs to fix it.

This is fairly free of political messages, and the system of sins and virtues is interesting and creative, but the style causes a serious readability issue. I came away with a good grasp of what it’s about, but not much in the way of details. I’d like to have a more extensive discussion of the relationship between power and sin, for example. This story would be more entertaining and meaningful with a little more structure and a little less artistic flair. Of course, it might not have been nominated that way.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Warming Season by S.R. Algernon

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The description of this novel says it’s based in the universe of Algernon’s short stories “In Cygnus and in Hell” and “Home Cygnus,” both published in Nature magazine. It’s billed as Cygnus Book I, so I expect we’ll see additions to the series. For anyone who doesn’t recall, Algernon was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016 for the short story “Asymmetrical Warfare.” This novel was published in January 2020 and runs 438 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Cygnus is a moon of the planet 16 Cygni Bb, which has been settled by a group of colonists who arrived on the colony ship Xi-Zhong. Three-hundred and sixty-five years after the founding, the colony is dominated by the Cygnus Power Corporation, and stagnation and corruption have set in. The moon has a harsh climate, and even after efforts at terraforming, temperatures in winter and summer are extreme, so colonists struggle to make a living. At the end of the cold season, a man is found dead in an alleyway, and Silver Falls Liaison Officer Deepankar Varanasi begins an investigation. The man has invented a prototype that will transform power generation, and a group of rebels aims to capture the prototype and launch a take-over of the entire colony. Cygnus Power moves to protect their interests and maintain the status quo. As the confrontation develops, it looks like they’re headed for total warfare. As Liaison, can Dee do anything to save the colony?

This is a slow burner, an absorbing story with strong, well-developed characters and a complex plot. The world is imagined in fair detail, including the environment, the government, the religious observances, and Dee’s circle of family, friends and acquaintances. This isn’t really about the technology, so the prototype’s function isn’t explained, but in general, the level of tech seem reasonable. We get a brief glimpse of a colony off-shoot with a different approach to adaptation. From a slow burn at the beginning, this progresses toward a train wreck of epic proportions.

On the not-so positive side, I had a little trouble defining Dee’s role and following his responses as the crisis develops. He seems to be an appointed official with self-esteem issues who attends children’s pageants and speaks at commemoration parades, and I would expect this kind of officer to have a security squad to handle things for him. Instead, Dee tries to operate as a one-man police force, investigating crimes and confronting revolutionaries himself. When things go wrong, he has no clear plan. His hands-on approach adds to the adventure quality of the story, but it’s hard to support in realistic terms.

It’s an interesting beginning to a series and I have to appreciate the space colony setting and the projection into a possible future. We’ll have to wait to see how things resolve.

Four stars.

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

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