Review of The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga/Angry Robot on 19 March 2019 and runs 369 pages. The novel is an expansion of the author’s short story “The Light Brigade” published by Lightspeed in November 2015. This novel is not appropriate for children, and it gets a trigger warning for adults, too, as it includes graphic descriptions of death in a war. This review contains spoilers.

After São Paulo is depopulated by the Blink, Dietz wants to be a hero. She signs up for the Corporate Corps to fight against the Communist Martians that everybody knows are responsible. She goes through basic training and then is deployed on missions with a technology that breaks combat grunts down into particles of light and reassembled them somewhere else. However, for some soldiers this light-speed travel causes time glitches. Dietz experiences the war in a jumble of out-of-sync missions, but keeps her mouth shut about it because of rumors people who talk about things like that disappear. After a while, the jumble of missions starts to assemble into a picture that causes Dietz to question the very basis of the war. Is there anything she can do about it?

First the literary allusions: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854 about the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here’s a short sample: “Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” Besides this, the transport technology strongly suggests Star Trek.

This novel is another in the recent trend to surrealist writing, and the accomplishment is fairly impressive. The main theme seems to be how easy it is to believe in lies and never think for yourself, and the story also functions as an anti-war screed. There is a definite plot, but it’s jumbled because of the time glitches and has to be assembled by the reader (you might want to take notes). Next, it seems Hurley has read Marx, who predicts that the end game of Capitalism is a small number of huge, wealthy and powerful corporations that ruthlessly fight to eliminate the competition. Hence the corporate wars in this novel. The Big Six are pitted against one another, and will commit any atrocity to win. While the rich corporates get richer, the poor are dying in the ruins. The Martian resistance is the Marxist revolution. We don’t get a clear picture of how these rebels carry on their business, but they are presented as living free lives and are labeled by the corporate leaders as dangerous Communists who threaten an important way of life.

On the less positive side, the author’s tool for creating impact includes constant graphic descriptions of violent death and dismemberment. Just be warned—I flinched at the first few incidents, but after a while I got desensitized and just plowed through the carnage. Next, the book makes an excellent case against the dangers of uncontrolled Capitalism, but suggesting that Communism is a simple, easy answer to the problems is another lie. Economists know that neither system is a panacea, and the best solution is a middle ground that stimulates enterprise while still providing opportunity for all. The important issue becomes how to provide that, especially for vulnerable members of the population. And one last annoyance: this is written in first person, and Dietz remains ungendered through the whole book until a friend calls her by her first name on page 351. Please, either let us know about gender early on or else let the protagonist remain ungendered. This device is clearly meant to be a gotcha, and it is not a twist ending.

Four stars.

Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Review of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a young adult science fiction novel published by Delacorte in November of 2018. It runs 515 pages. This is described as a trilogy, and book #2 called Starsight will be released in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Spensa is seventeen. She lives below ground on the world Detritus, which is a desert planet encased in space junk. Periodic openings in the junk layer allow Krell fighter ships to descend and launch attacks that could crack the caverns and destroy human habitation on the planet. The DDF is in dire need of fighter pilots to defend both the surface Alta Base and the caverns. Spensa wants to fly like her father, but he was branded a deserter and a coward after the Battle of Alta, so she has to battle a lot of prejudice to get into the pilot training program. She finally succeeds and enters a class taught by her father’s wing mate Cobb. Because of the shortage of pilots, the cadets are forced into combat almost immediately, and members of the class start to die. Spensa stumbles over an ancient, abandoned fighter ship in a cavern near the military base. When she starts to rebuild it, she finds there are a lot of questions about the situation that she needs answers to. And was her father really a coward?

The characters are very well-developed here, and we get attached to the cadets. There’s a lot of experiential time devoted to the mechanics of the fighters and the experience of flying, a la military SF, but the best thing about it is the always-dependable Sanderson themes. The first is the nature of cowardice, and the next is the issue of independent thought. Spensa is a scrappy outcast, always having to fight to get ahead, and this gives her a different perspective than the entrenched wealthy and politically powerful people she is dealing with. As her goals turn out to be questionable, she starts to think for herself about the society where she lives. Her friend FM wonders what it does to have a military government and to glorify fighting instead of building a better society. “Most people never question,” FM says, “and doggedly go through the motions of an obedient life.”

On the not so positive side, I thought the resolution to this was a trifle simplistic. Besides that, it pretty much changes the meaning of everything that’s gone before, and leaves all of Spensa’s attitude, goals and efforts in this book completely empty. There was some foreshadowing of unexplained issues, of course, but nothing to predict the extent of the lies. Do the leaders of this society even know what it’s based on? It’s like all of the fabric of reality crumbles, and we have a sudden, fairly jolting shift in perspective. Sanderson says something in the acknowledgements about this being fueled by his own experience as a kid, so I’m thinking it’s an intended symbolism. There are also a few loose ends that I’m suspicious about. We’ll have to see how this develops in Book #2.

Four and a half stars.

Comparing Brazee’s Fire Ant to Kowal’s The Calculating Stars

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For readers following along, I’ve just finished reviewing the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Award. When I started looking at patterns, I noticed that many of the authors used similar literary devices and plotlines. I’d like to take a closer look at a couple of these. In the first comparison, Jonathan Brazee and Mary Robinette Kowal have used the same plotline to write their books on the ballot this year, while expressing completely different worldviews in the results. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books.

Here’s how the plotline goes: There’s a threat to the survival of the human race. A minority woman who happens to be a pilot is front and center for the threat, and as a result gets an opportunity to advance her skills and experience in order to be instrumental in saving the human race.

Brazee’s heroine is Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay. Her name suggests mixed racial ancestry: O’Shea is of Irish origin, Salinas is Hispanic and Dalisay is Tagalog/Filipino. Floribeth seems to be from an humble background, and she works hard so she can send money home to her family. When she encounters an alien spacecraft, she uses her wits and skill to survive and escape. The company she works for refuses to believe her story and fines her for damages to their equipment. However, word gets out, and Floribeth is approached by government officials who offer her a chance to enter the Royal Navy as a pilot. Floribeth takes the chance and goes through the training. When she does poorly in the first live exercise, she acknowledges the damage to her reputation, but doesn’t let it affect her drive and belief in herself. She ignores snide comments about her qualifications and concentrates on doing her job. She goes on to heroically rescue a member of her unit as a last ditch effort in a real firefight with the aliens.

Kowal’s heroine is Elma York, a Jewish woman from a comfortable background with PHDs in physics and math. She has wartime experience as a pilot and works as a human computer for NACA, the space administration where her husband Nathaniel also works as an aerospace engineer. When a meteor strikes the Northeastern US and threatens life on Earth, NACA starts an accelerated program to develop space flight and establish a colony on the moon. Elma’s PHDs are aimed at research and teaching, but she has applied for a job well below her qualifications. She suffers from panic attacks when asked to make presentations of her work in public, takes tranquilizers and hides to puke in the bathroom. When her husband asks her to help him with a presentation before Congress, she totally freezes up and leaves him to labor through it alone. While the people around her try to give her opportunities to promote her abilities and expertise, Elma complains constantly about discrimination in the space program. When the astronaut corps is opened to women, she applies and is accepted. Once there, she carps about other women being advanced above her and bullies others in the group she feels are less qualified than she is. When an emergency arises, Elma successfully demonstrates her ability to make complex mathematical calculations in her head and is installed as pilot on the upcoming moon launch.

So, what do the writers mean to accomplish with these works? Brazee’s book has a very positive, you-can-do-it vibe. We get to follow along with Floribeth as she experiences terror in space and anger at the company. Then, given the opportunity, she takes risks and builds on her skills. She is rewarded by success and warm acceptance into her naval unit. On the other hand, Kowal’s book is meant to provoke anger at how Elma and her minority friends are mistreated by the society around them. We’re led to believe that Elma’s activism makes the space program more accepting of women, and that she ought to be recognized for her brilliance and promoted regardless of her poor career performance. Kowal has written the book as an alternate reality, drawing on real historical documents and events that blur the line between fiction and real history, and produced a very slanted story that serves as a condemnation of NASA and the US Apollo program.

Which is more fun to read? That depends on your reading taste, of course. If you want to read a success story in a universe that doesn’t discriminate based on sex or minority status, then choose Brazee’s work. It’s experiential and leaves you with a nice warm feeling that Floribeth is going to make everything okay, regardless of the huge hurdles in front of her. If you want to get angry about how women and minorities might have been treated at the end of World War II, then read Kowal’s work, which provides fictionalized examples designed to provoke you. (One note about this: It’s not that I don’t think the US space program was discriminatory in the 20th century, but any analysis of the program should include a look at World War II, the Cold War and the politics and huge societal changes that took place during these years.)

And last, which of these women characters is a better role model for young women considering military, technical or science careers? Elma and her paralyzing anxiety about performance, or Floribeth and her I-can-do-it attitude?

Review of Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/space opera and Book 1 of the series The Navy of Humanity: Wasp Squadron. It runs 154 pages, and was published by Semper Fi. This review contains spoilers.

Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay flies a tiny Hummingbird craft and is employed as an exploration pilot by the corporation Hamdani Brothers (HB), which scouts for habitable Alpha worlds and sets wormhole gates. When Floribeth enters the SG-4021 system, she immediately thinks she’s going to get a bonus to send back to her family, but before she can do a detailed assessment of the apparent Alpha world, she is attacked by an unknown spacecraft. There was no gate in this system when she arrived, so that has to be an alien craft. Floribeth fries her AI so she can pilot the craft herself and manages to escape through some fairly reckless flying, then destroys the gate she set behind her. Her managers at HB are not amused. They refuse to believe her story and fine her a huge amount for the lost gate and damage to her Hummingbird’s AI. However, Floribeth is approached by members of the ruling class who are interested in her experience and offer her an opportunity to qualify as a Wasp flyer in the Royal Navy. Can she make the grade?

There was a moment when Floribeth was detained by the HB company that I thought this was going to be a thriller, but Brazee opts for the experiential instead. This has the same warm, positive, you-can-do-it values as other of Brazee’s work I’ve reviewed, and you get to ride along with Floribeth as she outruns the aliens, then proves herself in training and in space battles as a recruit for the Royal Navy–even though she’s unusually tiny and sort of old to be changing careers like that. She has to overcome prejudice from her superiors and fellow flyers because her hasty advancement makes her look like a political appointment. This shakes her confidence a little, but in response she only resolves to work harder. I notice there are a couple more novellas already on Amazon from this series, so I expect there is a certain amount of bad politics in the future that will connect the space battles and keep things going.

On the not so positive side, we get almost nothing about the aliens in this installment and nothing about a possible political opposition that could strengthen the plot. Floribeth has two encounters with the apparent aliens in space, but there’s no description of their craft and their weapons seem to be very similar to the Royal Navy’s. We have no idea what they want, and these still might be renegades of some kind—I’m not totally convinced.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

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This novelette is a finalist in the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/fantasy and was published in the anthology Expanding Universe, Vol. 4, edited by Craig Martelle and published by LMBPN Publishing. Virdi has been a finalist twice for a Dragon Award, once in 2016 for the fantasy novel Grave Measures, and again in 2017 for Dangerous Ways. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an established novelist, and this appears to be his first major award nomination. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid called Messenger passes Earth; then another crashes into the moon, followed by an alien landing in Bangalore, India. Arjun Shetty is caught in the destruction and loses his wife and daughter. He is called up to fight and becomes one of the first Shikari called Vishnu, a giant cyborg warrior designed to fight the alien war machines. He brings down one of the machines in the ocean, drags it to shore where scientists are gathered to analyze it, and then suffers a malfunction—for a second he sees only the enemy, starts to fire on it again. Diagnostics can’t find anything wrong. An emergency in Bay 6 needs his attention. Bay 6 houses the Kali-Skikari, which has desynced and run amuck. Vishnu-Skikari destroys her, reports for debriefing and is sent in a transport back to Base. The transport is intercepted by war machines. Can Vishnu-Skikari defeat them?

I can see why these guys made the list of finalists. This is great stuff for a usually dull sub-genre—full of imagery, style and fire, featuring the Shikari cyborgs crashing over the line into violent godhood psychosis. Hm. Or are they? It’s is all pretty much steam-of-consciousness from Vishnu’s viewpoint, which gives us depth in understanding what goes on inside his systems. The other characters are poorly developed, but considering what Vishnu has become, their flatness and insignificance from his viewpoint is sort of understandable (and gets worse as the story goes on).

On the not so positive side, I’m not sure whose war machines attack Vishnu in the final battle. I suspect these are friendly forces, but a few better hints about this would have been helpful. And another little niggle: how many arms does Kali have? Four? Six? Or does she just sprout more as she needs them? Hm.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

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