Review of Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is published by Solaris, and is third in the Machineries of Empire series, following Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, also awards finalists. It’s published by Solaris and runs 400 pages. There’s an accompanying collection of stories from this universe called Conservation of Shadows, plus a few singletons about on Amazon. This review contains major spoilers.

This book picks up roughly ten years after Raven Stratagem leaves off, though we have flashbacks that fill in some events since then. A new Shuos Jedao wakes, resurrected by the ancient and powerful Hexarch Kujen. Jedao finds himself in an alien, chimera body that reflects the scars and traumas of an older man, but he only remembers being a seventeen-year-old cadet at military school. He finds Kujen wants him to be his general and lead the forces of the hexarch against the upstart Protectorate formed when the rogue general Cheris-Jedeo took over the Kel forces and Hexarch Mikodez staged a coup. Plus, it quickly becomes clear that Kujen is a cruel tyrant, and that the young and inexperienced Jedeo has no free will in the matter. Can he find a way to victory?

On the positive side, this installment is a great setup to continue the investigation of consensual reality and free will that runs through this series. The Kel on board Kujen’s command ship Revenant hate and fear the new Jedeo, both because of what he is now and what his predecessors did in the past, but they have to follow him because of the Kel formation instinct. In turn, Jedeo quickly finds he is a captive, meant only to be Kujen’s tool and that he has no free will, either. Even his aide is forced to submission through psych surgery. Besides this, the mothships are also slaves, an alien lifeform harnessed to serve in the human wars. As usual, the characters are well-developed, and there’s a light strain of humor that runs through the whole thing, despite the horrors and decadence of the empire. Some of the asides are very touching. The pacing and plot run better in this installment than in the last, with plenty of action, suspense and conflict to keep the reader interested. Last, Kujen’s physical attraction and sexual manipulations bring a strain of S&M to this installment of the series that I didn’t pick up in the predecessors.

On the less positive side, I was disappointed by Cheris-Jedeo’s character in this installment. When the young Jedeo woke, I thought, “Oh, goody! It’s going to be a contest between the two Jedeos,” but it didn’t turn out that way. The young Jedeo is brilliant, of course, but Cheris-Jedeo seriously under-performs, is suddenly incompetent as an assassin, fails to communicate where they should and falls into knee-jerk reactions where they ought to know better—although they do finally come through with some helpful insight that wins the final battle. Besides this, I ended up with some questions about events and motivations. These may suggest this is all getting too complex to manage and/or that Lee has forced his characters into particular roles to send social messages. First, it looks like physical mods are widespread in this universe. People make themselves younger and more beautiful and apparently change genders at will. So, why is Brezen still worrying about sex prejudice and wearing something as uncomfortable as breast bindings to look like a man? Second, if the Protectorate is going to ditch the old order and bring a new freedom, why are the Kell still programmed and enslaved to formation instinct? Next, how is it that, in a universe where math is so basic to reality, the young Jedeo makes a simple sign error in his battle calculations? Doesn’t he check his work? With all those servitors around, doesn’t he have a friendly AI to help out? Or is he keeping these in his head because they’re such a dark secret? The issue seems simplistic and contrived (maybe a message to young readers about math?), and I think it would have been better to leave his error undefined. Next, after it’s clear the Revenant has rebelled, why doesn’t Jedeo give the order to abandon ship? I know it’s questionable whether anyone could have gotten off, but it looks really unethical for the brass to clear out like that and leave the crew to die onboard. And why didn’t all the other mothships rebel at the same time? They could have killed all the humans and escaped. Wouldn’t the sudden calendrical spike have affected their crews’ control of them? Last, if Kujen maintains the black cradle, how is it that he only seems to have had one copy of Jedeo’s consciousness? Apparently he let a big part of this get away from him when Cheris claimed Jedeo as her weapon of choice, and now he’s only left with Jedeo’s cadet memories? Of course, it’s possible that he just wants a Jedeo too young to have formed subversive opinions, but statements seem to indicate this is all he has left to work with. Still, maybe he has multiple copies now, as he’s made previous, unsuccessful constructs with other clones. I’m left scratching my head about this one.

Final verdict: Negatives are inconsequential. This is an entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

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This novel is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and was published by Hodder & Stoughton/Harper Voyager. The story falls into Chambers’ Wayfarer series, following The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It runs around 358 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After trashing Earth, a group of humans left several centuries ago for interstellar space in an Exodus Fleet of generation ships. They eventually encountered other species and settled planets in the Galactic Commons free market, but some humans still stayed resident in the Fleet, allotted an orbit around a small star. This narrative (including an archive history written by the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan) follows the personal stories of a group of characters on the ship Asteria: Kip, a boy from the Fleet who wants something more; Sawyer, a young man from a planet who wants the security of his family’s roots on the Fleet; Eyas, the ship’s caretaker and composter of human remains; Isabel, the archivist; and Tessa, a young mother and salvage supervisor. Humans are integrating into the Galactic Commons, and these people are all faced with change in the culture that has maintained them for generations aboard the Fleet.

This is what is called a slow burner, as there’s no action line, very little conflict and not even much in the way of events in the first three-quarters of the book. The Fleet community seems to be a Utopian communist co-op, where everyone is guaranteed a home, air, an education and enough to eat, while expected to spend time in working for the common good. Money is not used aboard the ships, and trade is handled through a barter system. This is that safe space everyone is looking for, and the community is warm and welcoming. Asteria does seem to be experiencing a certain amount of stagnation, which is a real issue for societies that fail to balance capitalism and socialism well enough, and everyone has to deal with the austerity. Of course, now they’re now threatened by innovation and the Commons free market, and the question is rising about they can or really need to maintain the insular security of the Fleet any longer. I couldn’t identify anything much of a theme; maybe just the continuance of the human race? Purpose? There are statements, however: 1) All sapients are respected and valued; 2) death is a positive opportunity to recycle people into resources for others; 3) everybody needs to find their purpose; 4) there are givers and takers in the universe; and 5) it’s easy to accidentally destroy a species.

On the not so positive side: This is hard to get into, mainly because of the lack of action and conflict in most of the book; plus, I wasn’t immediately engaged by the characters. The story does offer comments on the human condition, and it gets emotional suddenly in the last quarter. However, I’m suspicious about the Utopian quality of the Fleet culture. The book doesn’t say what they do about mental illness, irresponsible layabouts and criminals in this society, or why there isn’t a huge crush of planetary immigrants seeking welfare—the kind of problems that plague real socialist economies on Earth. Also, I’m wondering how the same people who destroyed Earth would come together to create this utopia within the Fleet, with everybody suddenly cooperating and doing their part and not trashing the ship’s environment.

Four stars.

Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/space opera and Book 1 of the series The Navy of Humanity: Wasp Squadron. It runs 154 pages, and was published by Semper Fi. This review contains spoilers.

Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay flies a tiny Hummingbird craft and is employed as an exploration pilot by the corporation Hamdani Brothers (HB), which scouts for habitable Alpha worlds and sets wormhole gates. When Floribeth enters the SG-4021 system, she immediately thinks she’s going to get a bonus to send back to her family, but before she can do a detailed assessment of the apparent Alpha world, she is attacked by an unknown spacecraft. There was no gate in this system when she arrived, so that has to be an alien craft. Floribeth fries her AI so she can pilot the craft herself and manages to escape through some fairly reckless flying, then destroys the gate she set behind her. Her managers at HB are not amused. They refuse to believe her story and fine her a huge amount for the lost gate and damage to her Hummingbird’s AI. However, Floribeth is approached by members of the ruling class who are interested in her experience and offer her an opportunity to qualify as a Wasp flyer in the Royal Navy. Can she make the grade?

There was a moment when Floribeth was detained by the HB company that I thought this was going to be a thriller, but Brazee opts for the experiential instead. This has the same warm, positive, you-can-do-it values as other of Brazee’s work I’ve reviewed, and you get to ride along with Floribeth as she outruns the aliens, then proves herself in training and in space battles as a recruit for the Royal Navy–even though she’s unusually tiny and sort of old to be changing careers like that. She has to overcome prejudice from her superiors and fellow flyers because her hasty advancement makes her look like a political appointment. This shakes her confidence a little, but in response she only resolves to work harder. I notice there are a couple more novellas already on Amazon from this series, so I expect there is a certain amount of bad politics in the future that will connect the space battles and keep things going.

On the not so positive side, we get almost nothing about the aliens in this installment and nothing about a possible political opposition that could strengthen the plot. Floribeth has two encounters with the apparent aliens in space, but there’s no description of their craft and their weapons seem to be very similar to the Royal Navy’s. We have no idea what they want, and these still might be renegades of some kind—I’m not totally convinced.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

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This novelette is a finalist in the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/fantasy and was published in the anthology Expanding Universe, Vol. 4, edited by Craig Martelle and published by LMBPN Publishing. Virdi has been a finalist twice for a Dragon Award, once in 2016 for the fantasy novel Grave Measures, and again in 2017 for Dangerous Ways. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an established novelist, and this appears to be his first major award nomination. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid called Messenger passes Earth; then another crashes into the moon, followed by an alien landing in Bangalore, India. Arjun Shetty is caught in the destruction and loses his wife and daughter. He is called up to fight and becomes one of the first Shikari called Vishnu, a giant cyborg warrior designed to fight the alien war machines. He brings down one of the machines in the ocean, drags it to shore where scientists are gathered to analyze it, and then suffers a malfunction—for a second he sees only the enemy, starts to fire on it again. Diagnostics can’t find anything wrong. An emergency in Bay 6 needs his attention. Bay 6 houses the Kali-Skikari, which has desynced and run amuck. Vishnu-Skikari destroys her, reports for debriefing and is sent in a transport back to Base. The transport is intercepted by war machines. Can Vishnu-Skikari defeat them?

I can see why these guys made the list of finalists. This is great stuff for a usually dull sub-genre—full of imagery, style and fire, featuring the Shikari cyborgs crashing over the line into violent godhood psychosis. Hm. Or are they? It’s is all pretty much steam-of-consciousness from Vishnu’s viewpoint, which gives us depth in understanding what goes on inside his systems. The other characters are poorly developed, but considering what Vishnu has become, their flatness and insignificance from his viewpoint is sort of understandable (and gets worse as the story goes on).

On the not so positive side, I’m not sure whose war machines attack Vishnu in the final battle. I suspect these are friendly forces, but a few better hints about this would have been helpful. And another little niggle: how many arms does Kali have? Four? Six? Or does she just sprout more as she needs them? Hm.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is hard science fiction from the anthology Bridge Across the Stars, edited by Chris Pourteau and Rhett C. Bruno and published by Aethon Books in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid is about to strike Earth, and Trass Industries is readying a ship to evacuate a group of 3000 humans that will establish a colony on Titan. A horde of people is camped outside the Arizona desert compound, hoping to make the grade for the project. Knowing he will bear the fate of everyone he doesn’t accept on his conscience, company director Darien Trass is conducting interviews, trying to sort out the best and the brightest of humanity to take along. As the launch date arrives, violence on Earth increases, and some other colony ships are destroyed by angry mobs. When they start loading the Trass ship, Darien’s daughter Kara alerts him to a problem: one of the accepted colonists Frank Drayton has attempted to smuggle his small daughter aboard. The mob outside has found out, and now they attack the compound, triggering retaliation from Trass security. The crew and passengers take refuge inside the ship, but now there are too many people on board. They need to launch now. What can they do?

This is a fairly standard hard SF setup, with a world-threatening event, a high-stakes tech problem and an emotional dilemma. There is some subtle foreshadowing in Drayton’s interview that suggests he’s lying about his family situation. I also liked the imagery that places the big, ugly asteroid in the night sky right alongside the moon.

On the less positive side, after reading a bunch of stories I thought were too long, I think this one is a little too short. There are some issues that could have added depth to the story if they’d been addressed. For one thing, the foreshadowing went a little too far, making the solution to the problem too obvious. The characters seem manipulated to suit the plot, which leads to suspension of disbelief issues. For example, I didn’t quite buy the fact that the elderly Trass could outrun the mob storming his compound. And why was his security so faithful? Clearly they were going to be left behind. Why didn’t they panic and storm the ship, too? I would have also expected panic from the passengers. This could have been quite a bit more complex.

Three stars.

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