Review of “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou

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This story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award in the short fiction category. It was published in Strange Horizons December 2017, and it runs fairly long at about 8400 words. This review includes spoilers.

Maria is stuck in Athens when the plague strikes. She is 23-weeks pregnant and her elderly father is infected. Taking him with her, she sets off, trying to make it home to Thessaloniki and her husband Simos. There have been riots and the power grid is down. There are birds everywhere. The roads are choked with abandoned cars, and eventually she can’t make any more progress on the highway. Maria leaves her father in the car and goes out foraging for food. She sets birds free that are trapped indoors, finds a shopping cart to load her father into. She meets Elena, another uninfected woman, and the two of them join forces, traveling toward Maria’s home while her father slowly turns into a bird. When they get to the house, it’s empty. Simos has gone to Athens to look for her. Maria is attacked and injured by an infected person, loses the baby. She wants to continue the fairy tale, but can she?

This leans heavily to the surreal, and there’s not much in the way of plot. Elena calls it the “zombie apocalypse but with birds.” The story is very strong on imagery and dwells on words that describe collectives of birds. There are long blocks of Maria’s observations and memories, interwoven with a narrative to her unborn child where she tries to somehow turn the end of civilization into a fairy tale. It did hold my interest until the end, and amazingly, the ending felt uplifting.

On the not so positive side, some readers might feel this is a total waste of time. It’s all about the experience.

Three and a half stars for the artistic effect.

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Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

More on Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140

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Looking back at Kim Stanley Robinson’s body of work, I get the idea that he’s sort of interested in the idea of engineering both social and environmental problems, and that he thinks these two areas are heavily intertwined in producing threats to the future of humanity. Most people won’t want to commit to the intellectual exercise of slogging through all 600 pages of the teensy font and slow-moving plot in New York 2140 to unpack his ideas, so I’m going to summarize some of it here and ask for discussion. This summary includes major spoilers, of course.

Robinson’s first economics lesson is on the tyranny of sunk costs. This means the money already invested in putting New York City where it is and adding utilities, infrastructure and population. Because of this, nobody wants to move it somewhere else when the tide starts rolling up Wall Street and into the Theatre District. Instead, everybody copes.

Change is definitely coming in the next century, regardless of your political persuasion. Robinson has suggested methods for dealing with the need for different housing and transportation methods as sea levels rise and fossil fuels near exhaustion. This includes a return to airships and clippers ships, plus solar power and villages floating both in the air and on the water. Building methods make a difference. Because many of the NYC buildings are anchored into bedrock, they will continue to stand and be usable, like a new Venice, but buildings built on a slab won’t do this. (That’s just for informational purposes. See also Miami Beach, which continues to stand through major hurricanes while cheap development housing washes away.)

It’s clear Robinson thinks the recent US propensity for uncontrolled capitalism is the cause of a number of social ill, and a couple of his schemes relate to bringing this under control. First, he mentions in passing that people should be housed vertically, rather than in the spread out single-family developments currently popular in the US. This is already implemented in Europe, which has high population density. I was there in the 1990s and saw it then. A recent trip confirmed the continued policy. In Germany, for example, it’s really hard to get a permit to build a single family home outside of a city–though it is fairly easy to get a permit to renovate old buildings. Plus, home mortgages are really expensive and hard to get. Therefore, most of the population stays in vertical housing, allowing for extensive farms, parks and woodlands. Amsterdam has about 800K people and about 900K bicycles. The main streets consist of a bicycle lane, a car lane, and a tram lane. The cars will stop for you to cross but the bikes won’t. In contrast to this, many towns and cities in the US encourage extensive development of farm and woodlands to increase revenue from real estate taxes, while having no public transportation at all. As buildings age, they are abandoned for new development, leaving urban blight in the central cities. This system of constant new development generates wealth, but is really bad for local ecologies, and also the people trapped in the blight, who have little access to jobs and services and are therefore unproductive and need lots of police and social services.

Robinson’s next question is, whose fault is this? He thinks it’s government policy, of course, because government is owned by capitalists. It looks like he’s still steaming about the Bush recession of 2008. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention, this was brought on by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and because of automation, bank controls and globalization trends, it resulted in a “jobless recovery.” This is what current President Trump is trying to change with his negotiations in trade policy. However, Robinson thinks the people, a.k.a. the democracy, should have demanded a different response in 2008. The financial crisis caused major failures in large corporations in the US, especially financial firms on Wall Street, similar to the Great Depression. The Obama administration took over trying to fix things, as Bush’s term was up. The government tried to just let the market handle things, which is what capitalists always say should be done, but it quickly became clear this would destroy both the US and the world economies. In other words, some of these firms are just “too big to let fail.” The government bailed out banks and Wall Street firms with taxpayer money, which Robinson thinks was never fully paid back. In other words, this was a huge transfer of wealth from the US middle and working class to the wealthy. Robinson thinks the government should have bought the companies instead and nationalized the financial firms, which would have generated a considerable profit for the taxpayers. He’s suggesting the voters insist on this the next time around.

Besides that, I get the impression Robinson has no patience with amateurs who mess with animal migrations and habitats. His air-headed Cloud star is a real eye-roller.

Recommended.

Review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, is published by Orbit and runs 613 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The lower end of Manhattan is now intertidal, flooded by two major pulses of sea-level rise. However, people still live and work there, assisted by new waterproofing technologies to keep basements dry, plus sky bridges and boat docks to assist in getting around. The intertidal economy has been stable for some time, but it’s becoming obvious to residents of the Met Tower that the structures not grounded on bedrock will eventually fall—they need a better housing solution. Hurricane Fyodor appears on their horizon, certain to leave destruction in its wake. Can they take advantage of the disaster to establish a new world order?

This is a fairly complex book. First, there is a broad cast of main characters, all of whom live in the Met. This includes coders Mutt and Jeff, market trader Franklin, cloud star Amelia, building manager Vlade, police inspector Gen, Householders Union rep Charlotte and two kids who live under the docks, Stefan and Roberto. Everybody has their own busy life, but their activities start to overlap as they fend off a hostile takeover of their building, find lost treasure for financing and come up with a workable scheme to remake the world. The book includes a lot of history, economics, finance and science, which weaves through the text, but this is actually character driven. The characters offer each other acceptance and support, and conflict and failure are minimal, which means it comes off as fairly warm and fuzzy. The amount of knowledge and research that must have gone into this is highly impressive, as it covers all of the above, plus the various occupations of the characters, all with detail and authority.

I have to assume the scheme they come up with is the author’s recommendation, as well, which might actually be workable with enough grassroots support. It challenges the way we view politics and business, and suggests the central conflict of our time is between democracy and capitalism. Although many of the elements point to liberal, anarchist, communist or libertarian ideology, events tend to send up these interest groups, as well. Cloud star Amelia is a prime example, the bleeding heart that slept through all the ecology classes in school and thinks it’s a great idea to drop polar bears off in the Antarctic with all those unsuspecting penguins. Other elements make better sense. Europe is pretty well ahead of the US in the ecologically based housing, wind and solar changes recommended here, and we should take note. Robinson has a history of this kind of activism and it looks like he’s reviewing actual theories. I’m suspecting he might be a dedicated revolutionary. As a result, this is the kind of serious, important text that should win awards.

On the not so great side, this moves slowly and is highly idealized. In real life, there would be more conflict and failure. For example, I don’t believe that everyone in the Met tower is a wonderful, caring person, or that the Met can continue to take in and keep refugees without fairly serious plant breakdowns. It’s also hard to believe that the adaptations people have made in the novel (solar, wind, local farms) will have been enough to counter the enormous climate change that the author describes. As a result, this is politically and intellectually provocative, but lacks the kind of emotional impact that would really drive the message home.

Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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Review of Provenance by Ann Leckie

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This novel is a finalist in the 2018 Hugo Awards. It is science fiction and falls into the same universe as the Imperial Radch novels, presumably beginning a new series. It’s published by Orbit. This review contains spoilers.

Ingray’s aristocratic mother has set her adoptive children into competition to become her heir. Ingray comes up with a plan to retrieve Pahlad Budrakim out of “Compassionate Removal,” hoping e will offer to return artifacts e was supposed to have stolen. The retrieval takes all Ingray’s financial resources, but goes off as planned. However, Captain Uisine of the ship where she booked passage won’t take Pahlad as a passenger without eir assent. Meanwhile the Geck ambassador arrives in pursuit of Tic Uisine, posing the danger of treaty breaches. Things go from bad to worse, there’s a murder, and Ingray ends up offering herself as a hostage in exchange for her mother in an Omkem attack gone wrong. Can she deal with the politics and get out of the situation alive?

Although Leckie hit the big time with space opera and this novel falls into the same universe, I’m not sure it qualifies as the same. Instead, it’s more of a political intrigue, or maybe a cozy mystery. It’s a smooth, easy read with quaint world-building, weird mechanical puppets, mild humor and budding romances. Ingray’s hardworking translation app is a total hoot. There was also something of a twist ending when Ingray decides on a private life of activism instead of a political career.

On the not so great side, this is really dull and plodding as a political intrigue. The characters seem childish and naïve, events are simplistic and Ingray is wildly untalented as a schemer. It is absolutely unexplained why she would spend her entire net-worth on a half-baked scheme to convince Pahlad to give her the artifacts e supposedly stole. She takes huge risks and then sits and cries when thing turn out scary. Her brother Danach is an idiot, too, and mom is seriously in trouble for a workable heir. Also, given the treaty, I don’t understand why the Geck ambassador is allowed to run rampant through the human spaces.

Three stars.

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Review of “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld, September 2017. This review may contain spoilers.

Multi Bot 9 is wakened from storage to remove a “biological infestation” on the ship. It sets to work pursuing the vermin, which is highly destructive, something like a rat and something like a bug. Bot 9 is obsolete, and notices its job is 944 in the maintenance queue. This suggests the ship needs a lot of work. There are lots of newer bots working on the maintenance and Bot 9 makes their acquaintance, as well as chatting with the ship’s AI. Soon it realizes that the ship is a junker, has a minimal human crew and is on a final suicide mission to save humanity from an alien invasion. Can Bot 9 fix that problem, too?

Bot 9 is endearing because of its totally positive attitude, regardless of how nasty the vermin. Its abilities might be limited compared to later models and Captain Baraye calls the model “unstable,” but its primitive manufacture also allows for reconfiguration and improvisation. When you transfer this theme to the real world, the story demonstrates the kind of gung-ho spirit and creativity that solves even the toughest problems. The narrative switches back and forth between the desperate humans trying to carry out their mission on a crippled ship and the bots trying to fix it well enough to carry out the planned suicide. The bot interactions add humor, and of course the humans are totally flabbergasted when 9’s activities are revealed. The plotting and execution here are both creative and entertaining.

On the not so great side, this has the fairly standard failing of making the bots and the ship’s AI too human in their interactions. That means it fails on suspension of disbelief. The ship’s AI, especially, comes across as an indulgent parent figure that makes good-hearted threats to the bots and lies to the human crew. At the end of the story, we get the impression that 9 plans to ignore its orders like a willful child. Besides that, I didn’t think there was enough of a rising action line to support the story’s length. Nine’s pursuit of the ratbug gets routine fairly quickly and seeing the incident from its perspective insulates the reader from the drama of the human’s situation.

Four stars.

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Review of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. As best I can figure, it’s steampunk, and it’s published by Saga. The sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club), was published in 2018.

After years of declining health, Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her alone and without any means of support. Among her papers, Mary finds payment of a monthly charity allowance that supports “Hyde.” Knowing there is still a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of her father’s associate Edward Hyde, Mary contacts detective Sherlock Holmes, who is working on a murder case. Mary follows up and finds she has a sister raised by the charity, Diana Hyde. As Holmes and Watson continue their investigation, it seems that Edward Hyde could be a prime suspect. Assisting with their case, Mary and Diana discover other women created by unscrupulous scientists in a secret society, including Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini. Can the women band together to help solve the mystery of who’s murdering girls in the streets of London?

This is a very fun and readable mashup of vintage mad scientist tales, including both historical and fictional characters from the 19th century, along with the wonderful addition of Holmes and Watson to handle the murder investigation. It also has the feel and flow of these old novels, without being too weighty. The text includes asides where the characters discuss the writing of the manuscript, which is supposedly handled by Catherine Moreau. There are also messages about sexism during this period, especially having to do with women’s fashion.

Not so good points: The story avoids the obvious questions like the ethics of scientific experiments on live subjects, and on humans especially. The messages about women’s fashion were interesting, and reinforced a couple of times, but Goss didn’t manage to tie this to current issues. Women reading it will think “oh, it’s great that we don’t have to wear all those old corsets and long skirts anymore,” but miss the pressures for children to wear sexy clothes and for adult women to look like film stars when the fashion industry is built on the backs of third world labor.

Four and a half stars. Not deep, but very creative and fun to read.

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