Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold


This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of Alita: Battle Angel


This is a science-fiction action movie based on the 1990s Japanese manga series Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro. The film was released by 20th Century Fox in February 2019. It was directed by Robert Rodriguez, co-produced by James Cameron and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. Weta Digital created the special effects. Rosa Salazar stars as the cyborg Alita, Keean Johnson as Hugo, and Christoph Waltz as Dyson Ido. I notice this is on the ballot for the Dragon Award.

Iron City is a noisy, industrial dystopia after The Fall. It’s full of decaying tech, dangerous street gangs and bounty hunters stalking their prey. Above it floats the pristine sky city of Zalem where the rich and powerful live. A dismembered cyborg falls from the sky city into a trash heap in Iron City and is found by Dr. Dyson Ido. He attaches her head and torso to a body he previously built for his daughter, and calls her Alita. When she wakes, she has no memory of who she is. Alita makes a best friend in Hugo and starts to explore her capabilities, which seem to be very physical. She competes in Motorball against other cyborgs and does well. When corrupt forces in the city suddenly come after her, she finds she has high-level fighting skills. Can she save herself and her friends?

The most unusual feature of this film is the protagonist Alita, a CGI animated character created with the aid of motion capture, while most of the other actors seem to be live-action. Alita has huge eyes and first appears as just a head and torso, which is later attached to different bodies. Unlike early efforts at placing animated characters into live-action films, Alita fits in well and has fairly natural movement, though she’s still clearly animation. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead explores Iron City, presents Alita’s backstory through flashes of memory and introduces characters who are apparently emerging from her past. There’s plenty of action and fight-choreography, and an emotional climax when Hugo is at risk.

On the not so positive side, Alita’s character remains flat, regardless of emotional moments and pained facial expressions. This makes the sentiment seem forced. Clearly the film is aimed at an audience who is familiar with the manga, but if you’re not, the plot is confusing because the flashbacks aren’t enough to explain the full situation. There are some apparent cameos among the characters, which suggests the main purpose of this installment is to set up for sequels.

Two and a half stars.

Review of Heathens by Jonah Bergan

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I’m actually gone on vacation again, and there’s going to be a delay while I work through Cixin Liu’s Death’s End at 600 pages. To fill in, here’s a review of one of those underrepresented voices that would be hard to find in offerings from the big publishers.

Things in the US have come apart. The Free Republic of Texas holds most of the Central US, and the Kingdom of God holds most of the North and East, except for a strip right along the coast where UN Peacekeepers hold ground they call the “colonies.” Only the Deep South of Florida, Georgia and Alabama is still called the United States. Holden lives in a disputed, ruined city, and like many young LGB people has a talent developing. His is telekinesis, but others have different talents which make them targets for people who consider the powers demonic. When Holden’s lover is killed by hostiles, he leaves home and is taken in by Sol as part of his family. Sol is for trying to reestablish peace, but he is opposed by Clarissa who wants to fight against the enemy. Motivated by anger and hate, Holden grows more militant. He moves to Clarissa’s camp, where he finds other young people like himself who want to fight back. Eventually Holden has to make a decision about what’s right.

This is a young adult novel in the popular dystopia sub-genre. It’s written in first and second person, as Holden narrates events for us and also speaks to the enemy as “you.” The political divisions presented by the book echo the slash and burn tactics of current politics, where the extremes of right and left attack the voices in the center. It’s well-written, with Holden’s narrative providing both the flow of his thoughts and feelings and a clear picture of both the city and what goes on within it.

On the negative side, a lot of people die here. It’s a dark vision that isn’t likely to encourage hope in younger generations. Also, I can’t see where any but LGB teens are developing the talents, though some straight kids do get ground up and/or join the fight. This means the book is tightly aimed at a particular audience when broadening the cast of characters would increase the audience size.

I like the message. Four stars.

Review of “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” by Sarah Pinsker


This novelette is a dystopia SF piece published in Lightspeed magazine. It’s a Nebula finalist and ended up with 11 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Bay survives by scavenging along the beach. A woman in a lifeboat washes up on the island and Bay takes her back to the cottage where she lives on the cliffs above the sea. Bay can tell the woman is a musician because of the calluses on her fingers. Gabby is a “rock star” who plays for audience on the ships where the wealthy live. She wakes cold and sick, and finds she’s not especially welcome at the cottage, as likely no one will pay for her return and she is a drain on Bay’s resources. During the second night, she take’s Bay’s guitar and leaves, hoping to walk to the nearest city. Bay wakes and finds the guitar gone. It belonged to her missing wife Deb, so she sets off after Gabby, finds her sick on the road. Bay has little respect for her, as she is part of the pampered rich and has no survival skills, while Gabby tries to insist that she’s not part of that culture. They walk on toward the city, find the bridge has fallen into the sea. This ends plans and dreams for both of them, so they turn back toward the cottage. Still, Gabby has a boat.

This is another story without a plot. The two women only find each other and walk along the beach, then along the road. The whole thing is about the conversation and what they say to each other. From this we learn about the gap between the rich and poor and how this has led to the fall of civilization as we know it. On the pro side, it’s well-written and absorbing. I’m thinking the theme might be the collapse of the music business as it was into a smaller, more personal market. On the con side, I was a little disturbed by Bay’s coldness—it seems like she’s be happy to have someone to talk to after all those years without Deb. Also, the perspective shifts are a little awkward, from Bay to Gabby to an apparent interview for Inside the Music where Gabby relates the experience. Does this mean she got back to civilization?

Three and a half stars.

Stresses in the ideology

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Today I spent some time looking around for ideology as expressed in speculative fiction. Because of the recent eruption of bullying behavior between different factions of SFF based on this pretext, I expected to see some discussion of the issue. However, Google didn’t produce anything much. Just on my own, I can track the general evolution of the SFF field from adventure tale through hard SF to progressive, but I was hoping to find some expert opinions.

Here’s one I came up with, an academic paper by D. Bedggood on the ideological contests expressed by individual writers as representative of their era. In this case s/he looks at Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games (1988). The author describes these as definitions of what constitutes utopia vs. dystopia during the period when the novel was written. Specifically s/he describes Rand’s work as “uber-capitalist individualist,” LeGuin’s as “anarchic-socialist” and Banks’ as an idyllic but contested vision of “human-machine symbiosis.”

Vox Day has also addressed the subject of ideology in his blog here. I didn’t get much out of this. His essay reads like a rant, and his statements that certain people are out to destroy Western civilization are unsupported by arguments, research or expert opinions. He does make a couple of interesting observations; for example, that SFF is escapist fiction generally written by nerdy, bitter people who suffered through difficult childhoods.

The closest discussion I found related to over-all ideology in the SFF field came from Charlie Stross, who also made an appearance during my discussion of hard SF. He continues his thoughts here. According to Stross, human ideology made a sharp turn during the Enlightenment, when people stopped looking to the past Golden Age for ideas and instead discovered the notion of Progress. This meant it was possible to improve our lives through activities like scientific investigation and the application of social justice ideas. This suggests that “progressive” has been the reigning ideology since the Enlightenment. Stross notes that it has taken a long time for this to occur to some people.

However, something different has happened just recently where individuals are challenging what has become the standard for progressive social justice. The ideological split between Rand and LeGuin’s worldviews is still there, but now there also seems to be a fracture in the idea that we’re all in this fight together. Presumably this is a disagreement about what the word “progress” really means.

Examples of Internet Censorship/Bullying: Non-fans vs. Victoria Foyt

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55327_girl-writing_mdAnother example of Internet censorship is Victoria Foyt’s book Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden. The book won the 2012 Eric Hoffer award for young adult fiction.

The novel is set in a sun-blasted dystopian society and follows Eden, a young white woman, as she wears blackface as protection and tries to survive in a society where whites are oppressed by blacks. Despite this situation, Eden continues to think of herself in the traditional white custom as privileged and beautiful. Although Foyt said her intentions were to present questions about racism, the book was denounced as racist. An organized campaign left large numbers of 1-star reviews for the book on Amazon.

This novel also caused a scandal within the SF community. Weird Tales Magazine published a supportive editorial by Marvin Kaye and initially meant to publish an excerpt, but then backed down and apologized after a backlash. Jeff Vandermeer and NK Jemisin blogged against the book and Ann Vandermeer resigned as editor of the magazine, apparently in protest. The publisher eventually removed Kaye’s editorial and issued an apology.

Note: This should not be taken as support for racism in any way on my part. I just support Foyt’s right to freedom of expression.

The perils of engineering

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55327_girl-writing_md In what sounds like a bad dystopian SF novel, 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested earlier this week in Dallas for building a digital clock. Ahmed is a 9th grader at MacArthur High School and built the clock in about 20 minutes on Sunday night. He took it in to school to show to his engineering teacher, but the clock beeped in English class and the teacher confiscated it. Ahmed was arrested later in the day and taken to juvenile detention when he couldn’t provide a satisfactory reason for building the clock.

There is some suspicion that Ahmed’s name had something to do with his arrest, plus the fact he’s the son of African immigrants. Still, this points out the perils of being an engineer and trying to communicate with first, the average high school staff, and second, the average police officer. This is nothing against the average high school staff, or police officers, either one. They both try hard and often do good work. Still, the folks in Dallas seemed to have some trouble dealing with this situation.

Ahmed was suspended for three days while the police “investigate,” and so far he’s spent his time looking for another high school to transfer to, plus answering invitations to the White House and to science events. In this case, social media has done a good thing. It has publicized the fact that some children are, indeed, brilliant, and capable of inventing things at an early age. It has also allowed concerned adults to contact Ahmed with support and opportunities to advance his engineering skills. Maybe he should have been more “down” instead?

For anyone who doesn’t know, this is a trend to pretend you’re only average when you are, in fact, very brilliant and accomplished. It pervades the average high school, and kids are persecuted if they don’t conform. Remember that bright kids need your support.

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