Review of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

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This science fiction/fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 7 May 2019 and runs 492 pages. Interestingly, McGuire says she tried to sell this book on spec, but couldn’t explain it to anybody, so had to write it to make the whole thing clear. This review contains spoilers.

Roger and Dodger are twin geniuses adopted by parents who live on different coasts. Roger’s talent is language, and Dodger’s is math. The children are quantum entangled, so by an early age, they’ve found they can talk to each other inside their heads. It’s fun to have an imaginary friend that will talk back to you, but when Roger mentions Dodger, a scary woman comes to the house and threatens to take him away from his parents. This is Leigh Barrow, an evil assistant to evil alchemist James Reed, who is churning out genetically engineering pairs of children in an attempt to achieve the Doctrine of Ethos and the Impossible City through a guide laid out in the children’s book Over the Woodward Wall by his creator A. Deborah Baker. Terrified, Roger withdraws from his interactions with Dodger, but later he actually meets her at a chess tournament. They somehow both end up attending Berkeley, and soon start to realize they’re really brother and sister and a possibly dangerous combination. Meanwhile, Reed is getting impatient with their slow development and thinks he has achieved a more promising and tractable pair of children. In order for that pair to fully mature, he needs to get rid of Roger and Dodger. Can they defeat him and his evil minions? And then what?

First some background: Middlegame in chess is the part of the game in between the opening and the endgame. The Doctrine of Ethos, defined by Pythagoras, is about balance, especially between language and mathematics. At the time this book was published, Over the Woodward Wall did not exist, but it is now a novella scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020, by Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker. In Middlegame, McGuire describes Baker as “the greatest alchemist in North America, spreading her calm propaganda masked as fantasy.” It’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek glimpse of the author.

The best part of this story is the developing lifetime relationship between Roger, Dodger, their parents and friends. The characterizations, for the most part, are excellent, and we feel the children’s pain of separation and loneliness as bright children, especially Dodger, who is the math genius. The author lives in the San Francisco Bay area, so we get detailed descriptions of the setting where most of the story takes place. I’ve encountered the themes and devices used here elsewhere over the last couple of years, but this is definitely a creative synthesis of what’s out there.

On the less positive side, this could be considered a thriller, but there’s not that much to the plot, and at 492 pages, it moves very slowly. The first couple of hundred pages were gripping, but I was tired before we got to the end. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the timeline changes a couple of times, so you have to accept that events are not immutable. Luckily, the pivotal events seem to be fairly enduring. The novel is a tour-de-force as far as symbolic construction goes, but eventually I think it got stuffed a little too full of themes and ideas, where the asides start to distract from the main storyline. Reed, Barrow and the association of alchemists are only sketched in, when they might have been used to provide a stronger power struggle underlying the story. The pathway supposedly outlined in the children’s story remains totally vague, and the absurdist references to this eventually detract from the seriousness of the story. There’s a lot here, from advice to bright children, to finding balance, to maintaining your own ethics, to fighting evil, to understanding what to do with power. Although it has a science fictional framework, the inclusion of undefined alchemy and the powers granted by achieving the Doctrine of Ethos give it a strong fantasy feel.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “You Have Arrived at Your Destination” by Amor Towles

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The story runs 46 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

Sam and his wife Annie are investigating the possibility of conceiving a child with the help of Vitek, a fertility lab. Sam has an appointment with Dr. Gerhardt, who explains how the firm’s genetic engineering options might influence the life of the couple’s projected son. With the help of Sam’s wife, Gerhardt’s staff has prepared three possible scenarios of how their child might live out his life. Disturbed after the appointment, Sam begins to reconsider the way he’s lived his own life. Instead of meeting Annie, he stops at a bar, The Glass Half Full, where he gets drunk and confides what’s going on to the bartender Nick and his new friend Beezer. Beezer thinks Vitek is a division of Raytheon (the defense contractor). Sam has already provided a sample for Vitek, and he’s two hours late and now he’s really in trouble. He tries to reach Annie, but he can’t, so he goes back to Vitek and bangs on the door. Can he get his sample back?

There’s a certain amount of symbolism in this work, and some social commentary. It jumps around quite a bit, like it doesn’t know quite what it wants to accomplish, from Gerhardt explaining how conforming to societal expectations is so important, to the disturbing life scenarios, to Sam looking back and rating his own and his father’s lives, to his growing remoteness from Annie, and finally to the revelation that Vitek might not be just a fertility clinic. The story has been marking time to get to that point, but when it gets there, it feels profound.

The plot is a bit jumbled, and I didn’t get a good feel for either the setting or the characters—but, the whole thing seems to be about ideas. When we start trusting some corporation to genetically engineer our children, what are we really going to end up with?

Four stars.

Review of The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

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This is Kunsken’s debut novel, a hard science fiction tale with an adventure bent. It was published by Solaris in October of 2018 and runs 500 pages. Book II of the series, The Quantum Garden, will be released in October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Belarius Arjona is a transhuman homo quantus living in the 25th century. This means he is one of a genetically engineered race that can sense quantum states, and who can shift from normal to savant and fugue conditions for purposes of analysis. Arjona has problems controlling his fugue state, and as a result, he left the homo quantus research sanctuary at an early age to pursue life as con man. Because of his unique talents and highly successful reputation, Arjona is approached by the Union, a political entity that will pay a huge price to smuggle a fleet of warships through interstellar space in order to attack the Congregate. The Union ships are old, but refitted with a unique wormhole drive. Interested in the tech and the challenge both, Arjona takes the job, gets a talented crew together and sets a plan in motion. Will his team be successful? Or will they all die in the attempt?

Okay, so this is pretty amazing. First, the science, including the plan, the wormholes, the quantum perceptions and the projection of genetically engineered races, is all very well imagined, extensively described, and sounds completely plausible. Next, counter to the trend to totally plotless novels, this one is both complex and tightly plotted. (Yah!) Kunsken has set up Arjona’s plan in elaborate detail, including various fail-safe mechanisms, and then kicks the Rube Goldberg machine into motion so we can watch it all play out. This starts off slowly, as it takes Arjona half the book to analyze the job and assemble his team, but once the plan is underway, the story turns at least mildly gripping. We get a look at other engineered races besides homo quantus in this universe, a couple of which look pretty nightmarish. When things start to go wrong, of course Arjona has to leap into the breach, risking his own life to win the payoff.

On the not so positive side, there are some issues here with characterization, clarity and action line. Although some of the characters took on excellent color, Arjona and his love interest Cassie remain under-developed. They have almost no internal dialog. Arjona, especially, does not react to anything. We learn some about his background and personality from what the other characters say about him, but there’s really little to go by. Plus, Arjona doesn’t seem to pant, or sweat, or do anything, really, without a scientific analysis first. It’s like he stays in the savant stage—totally pristine and removed from any subjectivity. And Cassie is almost as bad–we don’t even know what they look like. Second, something about the way this is written makes is hard to follow. This may be related to the action line, but I ended up vague about the different political entities and about how the plot elements all fit together. Some of this may have to do with how I read the book—snippets at the car shop, more in the doctor’s office, etc., but somehow I doubt reading it again would bring these issues into better focus. The third problem is a flat action line. After the slow start, this book never really picks up much steam, and the climax, where there should have been a lot of suspense, turns out to be fairly sedate. This is somewhat saved by Arjona’s backup plan for the nightmarish-other-races thing, but I would have preferred more excitement in the plot execution instead. And last, I’m not sure “con man” is the best way to describe what Arjona does in this book. He seems more like an agent for hire to me.

Regardless, I’m hooked. I pre-ordered The Quantum Garden.

Four stars.

Review of Killing Gravity by Corey J. White

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This novella is The Voidwitch Saga Book #1. It’s science fiction (mostly), was released May 9, 2017, by Tor.com and runs 176 pages. The sequel Void Black Shadow was released March 27, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Mariam Xi, a.k.a. Mars, is a telekinetic voidwitch, genetically engineered as a weapon by a group called MEPHISTO. With the help of her sister Sera, she escaped their clutches and went on the run with a furry experiment called Seven. After an encounter with a bounty hunter, Mars is left helpless in a dying ship, but is rescued by kind strangers. Safely back to civilization, she tries to track down who sold her out, and finds that Sera, who she thought died, is still alive. MEPHISTO is back on her trail, and she has endangered the Nova crew who rescued her: Squid, Trix and Mookie. She picks up a new ship, sets out on a rescue mission. Can she use her abilities to make things right?

This is fairly creative space opera, with a definite dark side in the way MEPHISTO enslaves children to make weapons. The setting feels pretty gritty and hard-edged, with various AIs, augmented humans and transhumans as characters. The universe is well developed, assuming spaceflight and wormholes. The stakes are high, leading to huge space battles and consecutive migraines for Mars. For all her psychic abilities, she makes some pretty bad mistakes and by the end of the book, she’s only won a temporary victory and nothing is really settled, leading to the sequel, of course. As Mars’ only real friend, Seven provides the usual furry relief from unpleasant circumstances.

On the not so great side, this story doesn’t have much theme or depth. It seems action-driven and the characters aren’t as well developed as they could be. The crew of the Nova feel a bit like pawns the author uses to set up the battles, and Sera is supplied as the heart-breaker. I couldn’t get really attached to any of them. Also, if Mars is as powerful as she comes off in the final battle, how did that bounty hunter almost get the best of her?

Three stars.

Review of Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

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This novel is a Hugo finalist published by Tor Books. It’s promoted as science fiction but doesn’t include much technology. It reads instead like sociology.

In the 25th century, narrator Mycroft Canner is a Servicer/convict/slave because of crimes he committed in his youth. He can do high quality analyses, so his Servicer position gives him access to the circles of power. He documents a history for the reader, giving us glimpses of how the wealthy and powerful live. The theft of an important document sets an investigation into motion that threatens to reveal more than anyone wants.

This is an ambitious work, very complex and intricate. As you might expect with works of this scope, it succeeds amazingly in some ways, and falls short in others. Mycroft’s narration provides us a low-key review of human history, some fictional and some not, including the philosophical and sociological underpinnings of society. We’re treated to a jaw-dropping projection of how the world might be organized in the 25th century. Nations have been replaced with hives and noble houses with the ibash’ as the transit time across the Atlantic drops to about an hour. Recognition of divisive topics is discouraged, including the existence of gender and religion. People are a mish-mash of nationality and commonly genetically engineered. Set-sets are human-AI hybrids. About 2/3 of the way through, the novel develops suddenly into a political intrigue as it moves into revelation of what kind of crimes we’re dealing with.

On the con side this is another 400 page book that starts off at a glacial pace. The first 250 pages consist of brief scenes separated by pages-long blocks of exposition, and the author withholds information, meaning that the reader has to be pretty dedicated to slog through this part. Palmer then resorts to the 16th century and the Marquis de Sade to sharpen things up. The result is pretty messy, with inconsistencies in both the content and presentation. For example, Mycroft makes up excuses to describe gender and use gender pronouns, and unless there’s genetic engineering we’ve not seen yet, there are supernatural powers afoot. The world-building addresses the general organization and the houses of the powerful, but it ends up resorting to the past for specifics, i.e. ancient Rome and Paris. There’s a big emphasis on transit, but no clear indication of how this economy functions or how the government works or the common people live. The novel just stops; there’s no resolution.

The big pro for this book is the effort Palmer has put into the projections and world-building. It’s something missing from almost all the SF on the market these days, as writers tend to be overwhelmed by the rate of social and technological change and just roll belly-up. Regardless of the inconsistencies, the author has put together a reasonable sketch of how unrecognizable our world might be in 400 years. I guess that means it takes a social scientist to chart the change.

I can’t say much about the plot or action line as this has hardly started to develop by the end of the novel. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Four and a half stars.

When Is a Dog Not a Dog?

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Master Minds coverIt’s been a long time since the first wolf made the fateful decision to hang around a human’s campfire. It’s an odd decision when you look at it. After all, humans are more likely to be prey—especially the little ones who can’t run very fast. The benefits are obvious, of course—an easy life as a watchdog and a daily dinner of leftovers without the difficulty of hunting it down. Still, you have to wonder about that kind of vision shift.

The end result, of course, is the family pet we’re all familiar with. There are also working dogs, of course, the retrievers, hunters and herding dogs that are a little bit of a tougher fit for the family home. Dogs have about the intelligence level of a human two-year-old, but in the house they’re a little bit different from a human toddler. They don’t have hands, for one thing, and they have different responses based on their canine instincts.

There are always news stories about how scientists could increase human intelligence levels. Genetic engineering would be one possibility, or maybe connecting people digitally to the Internet. But what would happen if man’s best friend could be made more intelligent this same way? What if scientists could breed a dog that could think on a human level? Meet the working dog of the future.

“The Cabin” is a science fiction story (by me) about a dog that’s not quite a dog. Look for it in Master Minds, an anthology from Third Flatiron press, edited by Julianna Rew. The anthology is currently available in either electronic or print editions. Full disclosure: This is shameless self-promotion.

Third Flatiron website: http://www.thirdflatiron.com/liveSite/pages/current-issue
Juliana Rew on Twitter: @julirew

Young Love, Old Hearts

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oldloveyoungheartsfinal Here’s an early look at the cover for this anthology. Watch for it to come out in May, featuring my story “That December.” I have to say I’m glad to see that LGBT diversity is alive and thriving. I’ve been seeing more fiction featuring people with disabilities, too. As a side note, I’ve submitted a story to Queers Destroy SF, but we’ll have to see how that falls out.

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