Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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This is volume 2 of The Murderbot Diaries, begun in 2017 with the entertaining and award winning All Systems Red. It’s a novella published by Tor/MacMillian and runs 160 pages. This review may contain spoilers.

Murderbot has successfully escaped a quiet existence at PreservationAux and set out to find what its dark half-memories of a massacre are about. The transport it hitched a ride on arrives in port, and Murderbot transfers to another outbound transport, headed for the Ganaka mining pit where it thinks the massacre took place. This time, however, it has hit on a highly intelligent research vessel hired out for transport by its university. The two of them get off to a rough start, but ART (Asshole Research Transport) eventually comes around to the point of helping with Murderbot’s mission. Murderbot hires out as a security consultant to a group of young humans trying to get their research files back from a local company that confiscated them. This is intended for emigration purposes, but Murderbot gets involved in their problem. Meanwhile, news that it’s a rogue SecUnit has emerged. Can it keep the kids alive and find out about its past before the authorities catch up with it?

Good points: The interactions with ART are pretty much a necessity to deal with the realities here. ART challenges Murderbot’s stubborn, poorly thought out assumptions about how it can masquerade as a human and get to Ganaka Pit to find out what happened there. ART is a great character with some pretty transparent failings itself, and the two of them turn out to be a good team. Murderbot contracts for work itself and shows the same empathy and responsibility on the job that it showed for the last set of clients, which is the heart-warming part.

On the not so good side: It looks like the four installments of this will make up a full-length novel, but each installment is priced like a full-length novel. This installment feels short and incompletely developed (i.e. not worth the price), but hopefully the further installments will integrate it into the story better. I’m of the opinion that events and characters shouldn’t be introduced unless they’re going to contribute to the overall plot. In this case, it appears that Murderbot has rescued the kids and their files and neutralized all threats against them. However, this company had better be part of the Ganaka Pit problem, or else it’s just leading the reader on. As the novella ends, there’s no indication of this connection.

Three stars.

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Review of River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s an alternate history and was published by Tor.com Publishing.

In 1909 Louisiana Congressman Robert F. Broussard’s American Hippo Bill passes, and hippos are imported to clear hyacinth weeds out of the Mississippi River and to serve as livestock. The result is that feral hippos become a dangerous pest in the Harriet, a section of the dammed up river. Winslow Houndstooth, failed rancher, wins a commission from the US government to clear the feral animals out. He assembles a team of hard-edged outcasts and makes up a plan of action. However, he’s opposed by Travers, a man who has bought up most of the real estate in the area through the underhanded methods that put Houndstooth out of business, and has exclusive rights to riverboat business in the Harriet. Can Houndstooth and his team succeed in clearing the swamp? Can Houndstooth carry out a successful romance with the non-binary Hero Shackleby? Can he get his revenge on Travers?

This is a very creative idea that uses an obscure bill (which did not pass, in case you’re wondering) as a branching point in US history, and projects what might have happened if hippos were actually imported into the Mississippi River. It uses the Seven Samurai Old West plotline to put together a diverse team of outcasts that ride hippos instead of horses and are generally armed with knives instead of guns. Members of the team also seem to have convoluted motives. The result has the feel of absurdist fiction.

On the negative side, this is pretty much a parody of an Old West story. There’s a lot of casual violence as people carve each other up with minimal provocation, and some messy deaths due to the apparently carnivorous hippos. Presumably they have evolved to behave this way, perhaps due to questionable stock breeding programs. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, even though they were described in fine detail, and I wasn’t convinced by the love affair.

Three stars.

Review of Weaponized Math by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s military SF and was published in The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3 anthology. This review contains spoilers.

Marine sniper Staff Sergeant Gracie Medicine Crow and her spotter Lance Corporal Christopher “Rabbit” Irving are enjoying a cup of coffee on the roof above the village square. It’s supposed to be a routine security mission because a member of the brass is coming to a meeting with the local commissioners. Sergeant Rafiq and his squad are conducting a sweep below and it looks like it will be a cold mission, so Gracie is entertaining herself by running through the target positions and remembering the range for each one—an example of weaponizing math. A cargo hovertruck approaches the village and she notices some strange reactions from people she’s been watching. Sure enough, they’re under attack from FLNT fighters and things quickly go from bad to worse. Can Gracie save the day?

Good points: The author is ex-military, so this has the feel of a real experience. There’s a lot of detail about the maneuvering and responses to the attack, and we get the interactions of the marine fighters. It has a feel good ending, where Gracie decides to bend the truth a little to benefit the fallen Rabbit. Going from the names, this is a pretty diverse fighting force. Crow is a Native American name, and Brazee sometimes is, too, though I don’t see the author advertising himself that way.

Not so good points: This is all about the experience, which has the feel of a video game. I didn’t end up with much of an idea what the world looks like, what the conflict is about or even a clear picture of the technology available. The characters are flat, and about all I gathered is that Gracie seems to be immune to PTSD. I had a flicker of interest when she decided to lie at the end, but there wasn’t really any investigation of the morality of this.

I expect this story meets the specs for the genre and that fans will enjoy it.

Three stars.

Are negative reviews politically incorrect?

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A recent discussion about reviews has caused me to Google about on the subject. In the last couple of blogs, I’ve noted opinions about the trend toward positive reviews, but there are some more pointed opinions out there on the issue of negative vs. positive reviews. This is the third and last blog on the subject.

Rafia Zakaria, writing for The Baffler, has thrown her support firmly behind critical reviews. Unless it stings, she says, then it’s not worth anything. She also has some interesting ideas about why and how the current trend has emerged.

First, she notes that the tone and style of contemporary book reviews reads like ad copy—generally including a summary and some non-conclusions, but nothing of critical engagement or analysis of how the work might relate to the environment it emerges from. Her conclusion is that this style is based mainly on a political ethics that requires non-judgement. In other words, all readers are expected to “check their biases and privilege” before reading and not make any kind of judgement about the content or quality of the book. Ergo, writing only positive reviews is a commitment to equality and fairness for all.

However, this raises questions about affirmative action. According to Zakaria, the purpose of limiting negative reviews this way is (implicitly) to assist underprivileged and marginalized authors, whose work may be hard for readers to relate to. She suggests that critical reviews are seen as a kind of “textual violence” and therefore “a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.” As a marginalized minority writer herself, she feels this is a matter of the privileged taking offence on the behalf of the marginalized while at the same time suggesting that minority authors’ work is too sub-standard to stand up to a real review.

Does she have a point? Are reviews now required to serve marginalized writers through non-judgement? Is this a tacit statement on the poor quality of their work?

Then what about the other side of this? Because of the pressure for positive reviews, many reviewers won’t read something when they feel they can’t give it a good review. This means people who have written something truly different are shut out of the market. Because of the current publishing climate, this could include people with unpopular political viewpoints, people who are expressing an uncomfortable reflection of society, or people who are too rooted in their own cultural viewpoint to suit the current marketplace. Of course, minority writers who are accepted and heavily promoted by big name publishers are going to get reviews in big name publications, but what about everybody else? Is the emphasis on only positive reviews shutting out reviews of all these other works?

Review of “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

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This story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. It’s hard science fiction and was published in 2017 by Tor.com. Note: review may contain spoilers.

The Earth is dying and the Martian colonies have been abandoned. Financed by the wealthy Nathaniel Sanchez, architect Susannah Li-Langford is building a monument on Mars, using remote machines to clothe a spire in sparkling, white tiles. In a surprising development, the machines notify her they’ve received a signal. Could there be life still on Mars after all?

This is a pretty dystopian setting. With the Earth devastated by climate change and biological warfare, its people have lost their dream to move out to the stars. Instead, they are slowly dying in place. Li-Langford is nearing the end of her life but keeps plodding away at her monument, hoping to leave something lasting behind.

Good points: First, this is science fiction, somewhat on the hard side, but not technical enough to put anyone off. Next, the message is hope. Even with all that’s gone wrong, Li-Langford is willing to abandon her dreams to give someone else a ray of hope.

Not so good points: This reminded me very strongly of Weir’s The Martian, so I didn’t take it as highly original. I thought the characters were flat and not well developed; plus, there was a lot of exposition—I really didn’t end up feeling the devastation on Earth. I didn’t really feel Li-Langford’s dream, either. Why waste all the time and money on a monument when it seems like Earth needs it instead? Then she abandons it without a second thought and dismantles way more than seems necessary for the situation. And how are a few tiles going to help castaways? The plot didn’t quite hold water for me.

Two and a half stars because of the believability issues.

The Pressures for Positive Reviews

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Here’s the second installment on the subject of reviews and what’s expected from the contemporary book or film critic. There were a few more interesting opinions that came out of my recent readings on the subject, generally related to those explored in the last blog.

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller describes the traditional model of literary criticism where critics pretty much made the classics by pointing out which books should matter for a cultivated, educated audience. This meant the critics were the arbiters of taste, and the audience took their advice because they wanted to be seen as cultivated and intelligent. Publishers were also, presumably, swayed by these critics’ opinions which slapped down anyone unsuitable who thought they could write a novel. Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom. Her view of the critic’s role is to point out the books he or she likes in particular so the audience can find them.

Of course, the problem with this is that authors and publishers quickly get the idea they should offer inducements for critics to point out their books. Writing for The Baffler, Rafia Zakaria calls reviewers an “extended marketing operation” who are expected to “arrange the book in a bouquet” like blooming flowers to help attract an audience.

Writing for Slate, Ben Yagoda gives us a current classification of critics:
• Over-intellectual nitpickers – Try to rate popular books as something they’re not.
• Soft touches – In the pockets of publishers.
• Quote sluts – Write notices for display ads.
• Chummy logrollers – Relentless enthusiasm for the blogosphere.
• Careerist contrarians – Try to stand out with unpopular opinions.
Yagoda also suggests a reason for large audience vs. critic discrepancies in ratings. He thinks this means the work is unpleasant to sit through in some way. In other words, reviewers will hold out because they’ve got to write a review, while causal readers or film viewers will take off and find something better to do.

Also writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman describes the “safe space” atmosphere of the Twitter/blogosphere where all books are wonderful and every writer is every other writer’s fan. He calls this shallow, untrue and chilling to literary culture. After all, he says, what critic will write an honest review in an environment where authors are valued more for their social media following than for what they write? What he doesn’t say is how fast this social media following can turn into trollish attack dogs. Silverman says it’s not publishing that’s threatened; instead, it’s the body of reviewers who are trivialized and endangered by this system.

Another issue Silverman doesn’t identify in this analysis is generational characteristics at work. Everyone likes praise, but a constant need for it is fairly well identified with millennials. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Alex Williams points out some of the tendencies we can expect from Generation Z (aka post-millennials), now displacing the millennials as the largest, richest and most sought-after generation of consumers. Gen Z is generally the children of Gen X, who are coming of age post Millennium. Compared to millennials, this group has grown up in uncertain times, so they tend to be more conservative than millennials and heavily concerned with privacy, risk and safe spaces. They tend to be less binary and more biracial, are heavily oriented toward technology and social media and tend to lose interest in things more quickly.

Is this the group Silverman has identified as so intolerant of critical reviews in the Twitter/blogosphere? When will the upcoming Gen Z start to change what sells in the marketplace?

Are critical reviews an outdated idea?

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Since we had a recent discussion here about reviews, I’ve been doing some reading on the issue, and I’ve made up made up a short series on the subject of critical or negative as opposed to strictly positive reviews. Here’s the first installment.

There was a time when artists put their work out there in front of the public and held their breaths, hoping for a positive review from critics that would encourage sales. However, unless you’ve annoyed some group that will trash your work on Amazon, the big issue these days seems to be getting someone to review your work, and not the question of what they’ll say or how many stars they’ll give you. There has been a recent trend toward highly positive reviews, to the point where it’s getting hard to find a negative one, or even one that provides a real critical analysis. So, is this a problem for the literary community?

A discussion about this demise of critical reviews seems to have broken out into public view just lately. This may have been provoked by a statement from Isaac Fitzgerald, new editor of BuzzFeed’s book section, that in order to “promote a positive community experience,” he will only publish positive reviews. Responses were varied. Sarah Miller re-reviewed a few “classics” for the New Yorker in response, using the contemporary warm, vapid style, starting with Moby Dick. Ha, ha. Very funny.

Other articles on the subject were more thoughtful. Jacob Silverman, writing for Slate, suggests this the trend to “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm” has to do with the growth of authors’ social media communities. He points out that writers and fans are trying to build communities that are completely safe, comfortable environments. After all, everybody worked hard on their book. Shouldn’t they get praise for the result?

Ben Yagoda, writing for Slate, and Laura Miller, writing for Salon, suggest that the content of reviews really doesn’t matter. Miller writes that most writers now are, and will remain, obscure and poorly-rated in the grand scheme of things. “No one needs middling reviews of mediocre books,” she says. Yagoda quotes Sturgeon’s law, named after SF author Theodore Sturgeon, who observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” Yagoda notes that the first part of this quote is generally left off. So, if everything is crap anyway, does it really matter how we try to sort it out?

More on this in the next installment.

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