Review of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

3 Comments

This novella is science fiction and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It was published by Tor.com and runs 227 pages. Full disclosure: Kelly Robson is on the Board of Directors of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Award. This review contains spoilers.

Minh is a plague baby, one of the generation that moved out of the underground hells in 2205 and made an effort to reclaim the Earth’s surface. She works for ESSA, along with Kiki, a young fatbaby admin, but there haven’t been any new projects for decades. Now, the Mesopotamian Development Bank is planning an initiative to remediate the Mesopotamian Trench. The bank has put out a request for proposal (RFP) for a team to travel to the Mesopotamian Trench in 2024 BCE in association with the organization TERN (which operates time travel) to do a past state assessment. ESSA decides to compete, and Minh manages to win the bid. A team consisting of Minh, Kiki and biologist Hamid meets with TERN historian Fabian in Bangladesh hell, where he explains that the trip will also transport tourists, and that there is absolutely no risk because the particular time line they create will collapse once they’re all returned. Once in the past, they establish a base and begin their assessment. Surprisingly, there are a lot of people making their homes around the rivers, and these people seem disturbed by the weird monsters wandering around. Can the team really make it back safely?

On the positive side, this brings attention to the problem of environmental degradation. Besides the team’s narrative, a paragraph or two at the beginning of each chapter gives us an entertaining viewpoint from the ancient Mesopotamians, where King Shulgi and High Priestess Susa get word of the strange goings on and try to interpret and use these for their own political ends. We also get a lot of background on how environmental grants work. Also, the surprise ending is fun.

On the not so great side, this feels mostly dry and technical, and there’s hardly anything of a rising action line at all. Lots of text goes into establishing the situation, the setting and the characters. There’s also a lot of emphasis on personal issues and on dealing with the RFP and the various banks and organizations, then the sampling, etc., all of which might be totally boring without the promise of the Mesopotamian narrative. Near the end of the book, the two story lines suddenly converge and we realize there’s going to be trouble. In my opinion, this should have happened about chapter 2 or 3—the adventure is just getting started when it ends. Is there going to be a sequel, maybe? I checked, but don’t see any signs of one yet. Also on the negative side, I can’t see any reason for the “monster” part of this. Minh needs prostheses because she’s lost her legs and chooses octopus tentacles. Kiki has her legs cut off to reduce her size and weight and then chooses ungulate legs. Why are they doing this? Shulgi even notices how clumsy it is. Are they total idiots?

Interesting but flawed. Three and a half stars.

Congratulations to the 2018 Nebula Finalists!

6 Comments

It’s that time again, and the SFWA has come through with a really varied list. I’ll start some reviews with the next blog.

Novel
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Novella
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean)
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)

Novelette
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
“An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan (An Agent of Utopia)
“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed 1/18)
“The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen (Future Science Fiction Digest 12/18)
“Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (Expanding Universe, Volume 4)

Short Story
“Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
“Going Dark” by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
“And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3-4/18)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)

Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2017 Nebula Finalists

1 Comment

If you’re read the last blog post, you’ll see I’ve proposed the Ideation Scale to rate ideas presented by SFF stories. If we’re to believe that SF is the “literature of ideas” and that the best/most important stories are those that present provocative and/or innovative ideas, then we need some way to rate this. So here’s the scale:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

One caveat—this scale may have little to do with the literary quality or entertainment value of the work.

So, first let’s look at the Nebula finalists. According to the SFWA members who voted, these are the best/most important stories published in SFF for the year 2017.
I’m not going to go back and specifically rate every story, but I’d like to recommend that readers do their own rating for discussion purposes. I’ve likely provided enough information in the reviews for anyone who hasn’t read the actual Nebula finalists books/stories. However, I do want to have a look at the winners, and also a few of what I thought were stand-out pieces.

Best Novel
In the novel category, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin won the Nebula, and I thought Spoonbenders and Autonomous were stand out pieces. There were some good points illustrated in The Fifth Season, the first installment of Jemisin’s Broken Earth, that being the enslavement and torture of talented individuals in order to maintain living conditions for everyone else—the most good for the most people, right? However, this is already well established for the last installment, so I didn’t see anything really in the way of new ideas here. The novel was mostly about the confrontation between Essun and her daughter. I’ll give it 3 stars on the Ideation Scale as a rehash of The Fifth Season.

I really liked Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, but this was mainly because of the entertainment value. This is about the human condition and a projection of how psychic gifts might screw up a person’s life. The most serious point was a subplot on how the government pursues Maureen and her children for their espionage value. This means it doesn’t score very high in ideation, either. Regardless of its all-over attractiveness, it would rate about 3 stars.

That leaves Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, the satire. Here we’ve got ideas out the kazoo. Newitz attacks the drug industry, anarchists, fascists, hackers, intellectual property thieves, student loan indentures, military SF, trans SF characters and a few other choice targets. This is equal opportunity satire that points out the failings of ideologies, from capitalism, to anarchism to fascism. I’m going to go four and a half stars on it for the ideation rating. Good job, Newitz.

Best Novella
The Nebula winner here was All Systems Red by Martha Wells and I thought the stand out piece was “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker. All Systems Red was highly entertaining, a first person account from not-quite-human construct about running away from its master. This isn’t terribly original, regardless of the entertainment value of this particular rendition. It gets 3 stars. “And Then There Were (N-One)” is about the same women from alternate universes meeting at a Pinsker convention. Not only was this a very creative idea, but it was also pretty mind-boggling. What do you say to endless iterations of yourself? It’s also a literary allusion. It’s not world shaking, but I’ll give it three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
The Nebula winner in this category was “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson. This story was pretty messy, as it went for effect over logic. I didn’t see any ideas in it at all, so I’m going to give it 1 star. The standout work was probably “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker, which was about whether or not we need history and how we can be frozen by tradition into refusing innovation. Regardless of any complaints about the presentation, this is an interesting theme. It gets 4 stars. “Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee gets an honorable mention because of a brief ethics speedbump. If this had been pursued, it would have formed the basis of an interesting discussion. Three and a half stars.

Best Short Story
The winner here was “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse. This one has to go in the political message category: 2 stars. I thought the standout work was “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls about a man thawed out from cold storage after the Singularity when everybody is only a digital copy of themselves. This is mild, humorous satire that comments on social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other airheaded devotees of popular culture. Four stars for the satire.

Next, rating the Hugo finalists for ideation.

Review of “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Leave a comment

This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It falls into the horror genre and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Helen York is an English expatriate and down on her luck, so she is happy to take a position as governess when her friend Bärchen offers it. The position is to teach Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter, who stays at a beautiful castle overlooking a lake in Germany. Although beautiful, the place is clearly neglected, with dust everywhere and small bones scattered through the rooms. Peter’s nursemaid Mimi is young and looks attractive as a potential lover, but she allows Peter to wander at will. Helen finds him in the cellar trying to open the crypt door. The cellar is crusted with salt and smells like a meat larder, but she is happy to find a good store of wine as well. Can she ignore those seductive smells from the cellar? What are those things floating in the lake? And why does everyone at the castle have bad teeth?

Good points: The narrative here is third person from Helen’s point of view, and very well crafted. Helen’s responses and her conversations with Bärchen and the other servants quickly reveal her playgirl character and unsuitability for the job as governess. There’s a foreboding as Helen gradually discovers the strangeness of the castle, and the story rises to a horrific climax that was hard to forecast. There’s enough description of the setting to make it creepy, and a lot of sensory imagery as the scents from the cellar start to get to Helen.

Not so good points: This doesn’t quite hang together. It appears the family isn’t really human, and that they go through a life cycle from larvae to humanoid to sea serpent. So, I gather the crypt is where they hang corpses for the larvae to feed on, but how the scents accomplish this is a huge stretch. If you can create hallucinations, there are easier ways to get people into the lake.

Two and a half stars for the failure to make good sense.

Congrats to the Nebula nominees!

Leave a comment

Nebula_Award_logoNovel

Raising Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, Lawrence M. Schoen (Tor)
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)

Novella

Wings of Sorrow and Bone, Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse)
‘‘The Bone Swans of Amandale’’, C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
‘‘The New Mother’’, Eugene Fischer (Asimov’s 4-5/15)
‘‘The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn’’, Usman T. Malik (Tor.com 4/22/15)
Binti, Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
“Waters of Versailles’’, Kelly Robson (Tor.com 6/10/15)

Novelette

‘‘Rattlesnakes and Men’’, Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
‘‘And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead’’, Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
‘‘Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds’’, Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
‘‘The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society’’, Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
‘‘The Deepwater Bride’’, Tamsyn Muir (F&SF 7-8/15)
‘‘Our Lady of the Open Road’’, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)

Short Story

‘‘Madeleine’’, Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed 6/15)
‘‘Cat Pictures Please’’, Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
‘‘Damage’’, David D. Levine (Tor.com 1/21/15)
‘‘When Your Child Strays From God’’, Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 7/15)
‘‘Today I Am Paul’’, Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld 8/15)
‘‘Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers’’, Alyssa Wong (Nightmare 10/15)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Ex Machina, Written by Alex Garland
Inside Out, Screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; Original Story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
Jessica Jones: AKA Smile, Teleplay by Scott Reynolds & Melissa Rosenberg; Story by Jamie King & Scott Reynolds
Mad Max: Fury Road, Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
The Martian, Screenplay by Drew Goddard
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Written by Lawrence Kasdan & J. J. Abrams and Michael Arndt

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

Seriously Wicked, Tina Connolly (Tor Teen)
Court of Fives, Kate Elliott (Little, Brown)
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan UK 5/14; Amulet)
Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace (Big Mouth House)
Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee (Flux)
Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Levine)
Bone Gap, Laura Ruby (Balzer + Bray)
Nimona, Noelle Stevenson (HarperTeen)
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)

Review of Waters of Versailles by Kelly Robson

Leave a comment

royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779This novella is published by Tor.com. It’s also fantasy.

In 1838 Sylvain de Guilherand is a courtier at the count of the King of France. Sylvain has caught a water sprite and put her to work managing a reservoir and plumbing system for the palace. This pleases the king, elevates Sylvain’s status and sets him up for favors from the ladies of the court. One of these is Annette d’Arlain, who is bored with her husband.

Sylvain’s servant Leblanc dies, who had been managing the sprite, and Sylvain has to take over dealing with her himself. He struggles with trying to please everyone, and Annette points out that he is a “striver” for social position. As requests for marvels mount, he is faced with the realization that he is only a trained monkey performing for the court. What should he do?

This is a long story to make just this point. The pace seems a bit frantic, especially at the beginning, when Sylvain runs from pleasing Annette to worrying about leaks in the plumbing. He’s fairly callous about using both people and sprite, but suddenly sees the error of his ways. The theme is admirable, but it might be better framed in a different story. Obligatory picking: Do they have rifles in 1738? I don’t think so. Average characterization and imagery. The conclusion is meant to be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn’t snag me. Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” by Kelly Robson

Leave a comment

55327_girl-writing_mdThis story was published in Clarkesworld. I’m going to call this one slipstream. It involves alien contact, but I think it’s really about zombies.

Jessica works at a gas station after school. She can’t get hold of her mom, so after work she starts to walk to Gram’s house. A man stops who knows her name and says her mom sent him to give her a ride. He beats her senseless, rapes her, cuts her up with a knife and throws her body into a ravine. She revives to find she’s been taken over by alien bacteria that are trying to fix the damage. She gets another ride to Gram’s house, but Gram is passed out drunk. She manages to get her mom on the phone, but her mom doesn’t have time to talk. The narrative actually goes downhill from there.

So, this story has high emotional impact, caused mostly by the level of violence and the fact that Jessica is so alone. Because the bacteria revive her from death, it has strong zombie overtones. Diversity is uncertain. The gals who give her a ride to Gram’s house suggest she is a Native American, but Jessica denies it. This is very well written and it definitely has something to say.

I’m going to pick at it a little bit. Robson covers some of the main questions in the story, but doesn’t answer all of them. The bacteria tell Jessica they crashed a spaceship and then lived in a bear for a while. As Jessica wonders, how do bacteria crash a spaceship? Are they lying? Also, this happens just about 9/11/2001. What does the 9/11 terrorist attack have to do with this? If the bacteria moved from the bear to Jessica, why isn’t there an immediate disease vector? She’s in contact with bunch of people. Seems like all she has to do is sneeze.

Regardless of picking, I’m going to give it another 4.5. I’d rather there was impact without this level of negativity and violence, though.

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: