Review of The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, published by Tor, and is part of a two novel series. The second book will be The Consuming Fire, to be released in October 2018. This review contains spoilers.

The Flow is a space-time anomaly that allows interstellar travel in a universe where faster-than-light travel remains impossible. This allows the Interdependency Empire to flourish along its length, but restricts the environments suitable for humans. The people of the Interdependency have gotten around this problem by building space and underground habitats, and the rich economy of the trade empire makes this a worthwhile expenditure, but the habitats are very dependent on the Flow for goods and services to make them workable. Emperox Attavio VI dies and leaves the Empire to his illegitimate daughter Cardenia. She is poorly suited for the position, quickly promoted after the death of her half-brother, and suffers an assassination attempt immediately after her coronation as Emperox Grayland II. Meanwhile, the Flow appears to be drying up. On End, the only habitable planet in the Empire, all the way at the end of the Flow, physicist Jamies Claremont has just finished up a study commissioned by Attavio VI that indicates all the Flow trade routes will fail in the next decade. End is currently consumed by a civil war, financed by the Nohamapetan family to bring down the reigning duke. Can Cardenia figure out what’s going on? Can Jamies’ son Marce convince the emperox, the parliament and the church on Hub that his father’s research is accurate? What are they going to do then?

Good points: This is very well-developed, creative, tightly plotted and character driven. It has a pretty solid basis both in economics and in projections of how space colonization and habitats might go. The spaceship in the novel sounds like NASA’s prototype for a starship. Scalzi has done his homework. Besides that, he has an excellent grasp of dominance and intimidation. The major characters here are all strong women. This includes the emperox Cardenia, foul-mouthed trading guild heir Kiva Lagos (plus her mom) and Nadashe, cold-blooded conniver for the Nohamapetans. Marce Claremont’s sister the Lady Vrenna also puts in a notable appearance. This turned out to be mildly gripping. For the first time in a long time, I read until late at night and then picked up again as soon as I got up in the morning. It’s not often that I find things to read like that anymore.

Not so good points: This concept of the Flow is very original, but it also reminds me strongly of Liu Cixin’s shrinking dimensional reality. The strong women characters are just a bit overdone, resembling men almost to the point of caricature. Regardless of their political power and acumen, women do have a different psychology, and Scalzi might want to run his manuscripts past some female beta readers to clear up the differences. The characters also tended to be very decisive in their opinions, which reduced the possibility of internal conflict, growth in relationships and best choice scenarios. Because of this decisive, black and white plotting, I’m thinking I can predict how book 2 is going to go.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of Down among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and a second book in the authors Wayward Children series, a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Beneath the Sugar Sky was also published this year. This runs 190 pages and was published by Tor.com.

Jack and Jill are twin girls born to indifferent parents that only want children for their prestige value. The two of them are forced into obedience and limited roles, Jack a princess and Jill an athlete, but they sometimes yearn to be something else. One day they open their grandmother’s old trunk in the attic and find steps inside that run down through darkness into another world. Taking the stairs, they emerge onto a moor with a red moon and find there’s a castle, its vampire master and a village protected by a palisade. The other power in this place is Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist who lives in a windmill out on the moor. The girls are given a choice of which to serve and how to live. How will they choose? Is there any way they can get home?

Good points: This book falls into the young adult category because of the age of the protagonists, who grow from 12 to 17 during their time in the alternate world. It’s presented as a fairy tale about Jack and Jill, with chapter headings that refer back to the nursery rhyme. McGuire uses a narrator to tell the story, who addresses the reader directly and makes comments on how the tale relates to real life choices as it unfolds. There’s an artful contrast between the vampire master, obsessed with death, and Dr. Bleak, obsessed with life. This is inclusive, touching on the different roles women can choose, including STEM. Jack’s lover Alexis allows the author to comment on the question of weight and body image. The rest of the world is adequately sketched in for the scope of the story. Although it starts out with a magical feel, this descends into a faintly horrific vibe as the story moves forward.

Not so good points: This moves very slowly and nothing much happens. It’s another one of those expansions that could have been written as a short story with about as much impact—although in that case it would have likely reached a much more limited audience than the novella. It’s clear this is written as instructional material for 12-year old girls. However, I thought the choices were too black and white–the development doesn’t account for the insidiousness of evil. Although I notice other reviewers have called this magical, I didn’t think it was uplifting or empowering. I was left with something of a depressed feel. You have to enjoy McGuire’s writing style to get the most out of it.

Four stars.

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Review of Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s appears to be science fantasy and was published by Tor.com. It’s also the sequel to the Nebula and Hugo Award winning Binti.

Binti is finishing her first year at Oomza University where she has had problems adjusting to her new situation and the changes the Meduse made to her DNA during the eventful voyage from home. She suffers from flashbacks, mood swings and anger management issues that she doesn’t understand. She decides to return home for a break, during which she can go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe. The Meduse Okwu plans to accompany her to Earth as an ambassador to her people. At home, her family holds a feast to welcome her, but then family members express their anger at her decision to leave home for university, considering it a betrayal. Instead of completing the pilgrimage, Binti has a vision and meets her grandmother, a member of the Desert People, whom she learns to accept as a civilized people.

This installment of the story continues to investigate the challenges of leaving family to forge a new personal path in life, where Binti leaves behind the safety and tradition of her Himba kin group to attend a multicultural university. Her interactions with her family outline the difficulties of trying to maintain traditions after she is tainted by change. Also, this book exposes the racism that her lighter-skinned tribe practices against the darker desert people, and shows the desert people to be an advanced culture, after all. This parallels the opinion the Khoush people have of the Himba, and worse, the Meduse. It suggests they are likewise worthy.

Not so good points: The first quarter of the novella is basically a rehash of the previous book, as Binti experiences flashbacks, and the story only picks up with new material when she arrives home. There’s not much in the way of plotting or world-building either one here, and I’m left without much vision of what the university is like, what it teaches or why Binti has to cross the galaxy to get to it. (Is this just a symbol of cultural distance?) The astrolabes Binti and her father manufacture look to be a sort of tablet; her use of mental math equations to generate a “current” is unexplained, and the desert people’s communications system looks like nanotech. This suggests advanced civilization and a far-future scenario, but I’ve got no idea. I’m left wondering if African tribespeople are all that have survived some cataclysm on Earth. If so, what happened to everybody else?

The result is pretty confusing, but I’ll have to give the author some credit for different themes and calling out racism in people of color.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Walls and Wonders by S. R. Algernon

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This is a collection of S.R. Algernon’s short stories, published by ReAnimus Press. The book has just been released on January 15, 2018, and runs 328 pages. The collection contains the short story “Asymmetrical Warfare,” nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016.

You get a lot of stories for your bucks here, as the collection includes 21 short stories, some previously published and some appearing here for the first time. I’m no expert on literary styles, but the best description I can come up with for Algernon’s style is “psychological.” The stories tend to investigate minds at work, whether human or no. There are people responding to the increasing surveillance of life or to controls on speech from the state. A man is haunted by a stillborn brother. A vampire looks for a cure. In a few cases, Algernon makes the leap to representing completely alien life forms, imagining possible creatures and their concerns. The brilliant “Asymmetrical Warfare” falls into this category, as does “Once More, onto the Beach” and “Symbiosis.”

I was impressed with the world building here, especially in the stories about alien cultures. The psychological angle is also impressive, as it tends to investigate problems and look for solutions. On the other hand, I didn’t get much in the way of strong imagery or description of the settings, and the characters tended to be a little flat, without much in the way of background or expression of their most intimate emotions, wants and needs. This meant the stories were a little shorter and had a little less to say than what they could have presented. Algernon’s fans will likely be happy to see these works collected.

Three and a half stars.

What should we expect SFF awards to do?

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The large mainstream awards like the Nobel and the Pulitzer try to identify important literary works. But in the smaller world of SFF, what should we expect the Nebula and Hugo awards to do? Because the Nebula is presented by industry professionals and the Hugo supposedly by fans, one would expect that the Nebula should elect an “important” work that has literary value for advancing the SFF genre. Alternately, the Hugo ought to represent fandom and elect a popular work. But then, whose taste in reading is it going to represent?

SFF fandom has diversified, and this is no longer a simple choice. As I understand the Puppies’ complaints, they think the results in recent years have not been representative of the genre as a whole. Additionally, some have alleged that industry professionals and/or special interest groups have gained control of the awards. Why do they think so?

Not so long ago, the Hugo was awarded by the small group of people who attended WorldCon or who went to the trouble to snail mail in a fee for a “supporting membership” and wait patiently for a ballot to arrive. We can assume this group included dedicated fans willing to fork over cash to participate, plus industry professionals expecting to sell books at the con. However, the advent of the Internet has changed all this.

When WorldCon started offering supporting memberships online, then it’s easy for anybody to buy supporting memberships so they can vote without the expense of attending. This has the nice advantage of making money for the Con; however, it’s also mainly what has led to the recent problems with control of the award. Supporting memberships mean that any special interest group can influence the direction of the awards through the simple method of buying memberships. This exposes the award to influence by vested interests and activists, for a couple of examples.

I gather the Puppies tried to point this out, and when WorldCon ignored the issue, Vox Day conducted a demonstration of how it works. WorldCon’s response has been to institute measures to reduce the influence of coordinated voting campaigns, but given the presence of porn in the list of finalists again this year, this effort has had limited success.

But should this really be WorldCon’s problem to solve? Why not just accept that special interest groups will try to influence the awards? If fans of traditional SFF want greater control of the Hugos, then shouldn’t they just be more active in the awards process?

Review of “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

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This short story is a Hugo finalist published by Tor.com in March 2016.

Enith and Gaant have been at war. Although they have reached a peace agreement, there are war casualties on both sides. Calla is a military nurse from Enith and receives a message from the Gaant Major Lan that she met during the war. “I would like to see you, and bring the game if you can,” he says. The Gaant are telepathic and the Enith are not, but Calla bravely sets off with her chess set. She and Lan have a complex past, as each has been the other’s prisoner. She finds him in a hospital and the two set up a game, begin to play. Soon others of the doctors and nurses are offering suggestions.

Pros: This is a fairly straightforward story that reviews the experiences the two had together during the war and emphasizes their losses and their kindness to one another. Finding something in common (the game) clearly brings them closer, and their relationship affects the surrounding individuals, as well. I gather this is about overcoming differences and appreciating the kindness of others.

Cons: The story suffers from limited world building and scope, and I ended up with little idea of the greater politics (what caused the war?), the cultures or what the world looks like. Without the telepathy, this wouldn’t be speculative fiction. The characters are not clearly drawn, and I came away without much of an idea about how anyone or anything looks. It relies on emotion to carry it, but (jaded me) didn’t feel a whole lot. It’s a noble message, but not outstanding in execution.

Three stars.

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