In Memoriam: Mattie K.

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Mattie

We had a death in the family yesterday. Please spare a thought to help lift her over the Rainbow Bridge and into heaven. RIP sweet Mattie.

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Review of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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This book is near future science fiction and was published by Harper Teen in 2017. It runs about 384 pages. Silvera is of Puerto Rican heritage and lives in New York City.

Mateo Torrez is eighteen. He’s reading the CountDowners blog at 12:22 a.m. when he receives his final alert from Death-Cast. His dad is in the hospital in a coma and Mateo doesn’t want to spend his End Day alone, so he brings up the Last Friend app and looks for someone to spend the day with. Rufus Emeterio is seventeen. He’s beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend Peck when his phone sounds the Death-Cast alert. His gang the Plutos plans a great funeral for him, but Peck spoils it by calling the police. Rufus escapes and looks on the Last Friend app to find someone to spend his End Day with. The two boys find each other and set out to live adventures they’ve not tried before. Is there a way they can escape death at the end?

Good points: This story is very positive and life-affirming. Mateo is shy and reclusive and Rufus is assertive and slipping into bad behavior. The two boys influence each other to change in a single day, where Mateo comes out of his shell and Rufus takes up a lot of his new friend’s kindness. They end up with a relationship that’s more than just “friends” by the time evening rolls around. The story also touches other people’s lives on their End Day that cross the boys’ path. Of course, there’s a philosophical thread to all this, about how we should live our lives every day, but Silvera spends most of his time with the characters, leaving the philosophy subtle.

Not so good points: Silvera is very focused on the characters and their interactions and tends to neglects the action line. I can’t really complain about the plotting. There’s a sequence of events, subplots that include other characters, and a suitable finale. These provide little peaks of interest, but without the rising action line, the story fails to develop much drama. Slivera may be working to make the story gentle and encouraging for teens instead, but some authors would have made this a real heart-breaker.

Silvera gets extra points for having such fresh ideas.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya

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This book is translated by Jessica Powell and published by Mandel Vilar Press in 2016. It won’t be eligible for the next awards cycle, but I thought it was worth reviewing, as it’s a little different for a zombie novel. It runs about 184 pages.

The setting is the area between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Isadore Bellamy’s scrapbook provides us with personal experiences and includes the upsetting circumstances that surround the executive vice president of the R&D division of the local branch of Eli Lilly where she works as a researcher. The material she has collected includes police interviews of herself and her co-workers Patricia Cesares and Mathilde Álverez, plus the diary of the doctor, who is convinced he is a zombie and constantly in search of some method to reinstate his soul. The narrative reveals the different realities people live, and cuts off suddenly as…

On the one hand, this is a philosophical work, as it’s about the nature of existence and the search for the self. On the other hand, it presents an amusing picture of the doctor who is either totally wacko or a zombie—because of his lack of emotions, he totally fails to understand the women he works with. The book also provides a compendium of zombie lore, and has an appendix of wicked weeds for preparation of the powder used in witchcraft rituals to create a zombie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide Isadore’s recipe.

This is a bit messy, and won’t suit fans of the usual zombie apocalypse.

Four stars.

Review of “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Clarkesworld Magazine in April 2016.

Aliens have arrived. The people of Earth can tell because pearly domes have appeared out of nowhere. The domes sit there for a while, and then open to release translators, apparently abducted children, who assure the authorities that the aliens don’t want anything. Avery is a driver who gets a call from her boss asking if she will drive an alien and his translator from D.C. to St. Louis on a converted tour bus. She takes the job and picks the two of them up. There’s no rush, so she takes the scenic route, stopping here and there and getting to know Lionel, the translator. He’s strange, as is his connection with the alien. When the alien turns out to be dying, they make a stop at a cemetery outside St. Louis.

On the pro side, this story is really science fiction, as it wouldn’t work if the alien wasn’t there. Plus, it’s thoughtful and absorbing. This is a real alien, not some anthropomorphic creature that’s sort of like humans, and its alien quality leaves Avery investigating the very nature of consciousness. The story moves smoothly through the Eastern US, trailing men in black, and ends with an interesting twist.

On the con side, the characters don’t quite ring true. We meet Avery’s brother at the beginning, but he doesn’t give me the impression of Avery that her bio later reveals. For that matter, Avery as revealed by her thoughts and actions doesn’t match the bio. Gilman’s effort for an emotional outpouring at the end doesn’t quite ring true for me, and I don’t see any motivation for Avery’s final decision. This is also a bit low on description—I ended up without much idea of what Avery looks like, for example, or the layout of the bus. Regardless of these drawbacks, I like this one because of the central question about consciousness.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “43 Responses to ‘In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'” by Barbara A. Barnett

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Here’s another short story published by Daily Science Fiction with 10 recommendations.

The format looks like an exchange of Twitter messages. The first is from puppyhugs42 thanking Dr. Bates for his tribute to Dr. Alexandra Nako. The next is from Chekhov’s Jellyfish opining that there really is something beyond death, and that Dr. Nako is a martyr. The third is from AlexandraNako, addressed to Kevin. She tells him he needs to stop the research immediately. Contributors take this as insensitive use of Dr. Nako’s name, and Dr. Bates responds that the research will continue. Nako continues to post, and is banned twice, but quickly returns under other usernames to continue her warnings. Bates posts that he considers this harassment and has called security. Spam starts to come over his feed.

Like most of Daily SF stories, this one is very short. The format is creative and the story emerges from the exchange of posts as the users carry on a conversation. It remains only suggestive, as Nako is never able to post a complete warning—the letters jumble when she tries. Because of this, it never really says anything, only reveals small bits of information about the characters and what they might possibly have been doing. This means it doesn’t present thoughtful ideas or ask much in the way of questions. The story is entertaining, but again a hard sell for a Nebula nomination.

Three stars.

Comparing Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to Okorafor’s Binti

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Back before I went on vacation, I got involved in another one of those mystifying discussions on File 770 where I wonder how I’ve wandered into the Twilight Zone. This one was about who’s to blame for the legacy of slavery in the US. As a result, I’d like to compare a couple of the 2016 Hugo finalists. These are N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. Both these authors have African heritage: Jemisin is African American and Okorafor is first generation Nigerian-American.

In Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, the orogenes are group of highly talented people who can shake the foundations of the world. They are enslaved by the guardians who can nullify their powers. Orogenes are feared by normal people who ostracize and kill any children they can identify. Slavers torture the children they capture to make them submissive. As a result, the orogenes grow up without any hope of improving their existence. They are all victims, bitter and filled with hate, at the mercy of an intolerable system that goes on and on, producing people who would rather kill their own children than let them live within it. On top of that, one of them breaks the world, ensuring almost certain death for everyone.

In Okorafor’s Binti, the protagonist Binti is of the Himba people who live in Angola. She works in her father’s business of producing astrolabes and in doing this has learned to be a harmonizer. She is highly talented in mathematics and is accepted to a school in another part of the galaxy. Her family disapproves, but Binti slips away from home and takes passage on a starship. The ship is captured by aliens whose artifacts have been stolen, and she uses her harmonizing talents to mend relations between humans and the aliens, and to get their property back for them. She then takes her place as a respected member of the school’s society.

Of course, authors interpret things based on their own heritage and their personal experiences, but also from their cultural and political points of view. The differing viewpoints are one of the strong points of diversity, where ideas and insights are often stimulated by bumping into something unfamiliar. I admit to my own personal viewpoints, of course, based on the region of the country where I grew up and on my own education and experience of the world. These things always inform a particular author’s message.

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to state that discussions in the comments section of File 770 do not represent his personal views.

Review of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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This is a Hugo finalist in the Best Novel category, published by Orbit.

The story is about a land called the Stillness which is seismically active. The stills are ordinary people; orogenes are talents able to control the seismic activity; guardians can shut down the orogenes power, and stone eaters have the power to move through earth and stone like it’s air. The land is governed by an ineffectual leadership and consists of cities and communities that are struggling for survival. The Fifth Season is death, caused by cataclysmic seismic events. Orogenes are hated and feared, and the guardians try to capture the children and enslave them to work for an institution called the Fulcrum. Besides this, there are mysterious obelisks that float above the Earth’s surface, either alien artifacts or the product of ancient civilizations. There are four different time streams in the plot that converge. A woman sits by a dead child; a man breaks the land; an orogene child is taken and tortured by a guardian; two orogenes are commissioned to clear a harbor of coral, and as the effort dramatically fails, they escape and take refuge with pirates. As the broken land begins to die, a stream of refugees heads south, away from the epicenter of the event.

This is the first work I’ve read from Jemisin, and I was impressed with her imagination. The setup is brilliant, the imagery, the setting, the talents and the air of mystery about the forgotten artifacts are first rate. I’m not surprised that she’s nominated for a lot of awards. However, she doesn’t win that much. There are issues here, so I’ll pick at this a little more than I normally do.

The first issue is readability. There’s not much that really happens in the story, but it moves at a glacial pace, ending up at about 450 pages. I was 25 pages in before I had an idea of what might be going on, and 100 pages in before I connected in any way with the characters. It’s written in a sort of folksy, storytelling style. This softens the horrors going on, but that, the shift between time streams and a shift between second and third person for the narration tends to make it over-complex and inserts too much of the author. Second issue: this is described as The Broken Earth, Book 1, so I expect it will continue. That’s good, because it doesn’t really wrap anything up. It just stops. The last (and worst) issue is that I don’t really like any of these characters. They hate each other and live miserable lives. Nobody gets to be a hero—they just struggle and die, or else they survive.

Three and a half stars.

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