Review of The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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This book is science fiction, released by Tor Books on 16 October 2018. It’s Book #2 of the Interdependency Series and runs 320 pages. The Collapsing Empire, Book #1 of the series, was a finalist for a Hugo Award in 2018. This review contains spoilers.

This book picks up immediately where The Collapsing Empire leaves off. Flow physicist Marce Claremont is offering his father’s research for review, which predicts the collapse of the Flow streams in the very near future. This will mean that transportation and commerce along these pathways will soon also fail. The only habitable planet in the Empire is End, and the various space habitats will soon be isolated. There is already a civil war going on for control of End. Emperox Grayland II is having prophetic visions about the collapse, which is convincing to the public, but not the Church hierarchy or the nobility. Grayland is planning to put Nadashe Nohamapetan on trial for treason for attempted assassination of the emperox, and has assigned Kiva Lagos as caretaker of her estate. Meanwhile, the Wu family is plotting with the Countess Nohamapetan to take over the throne. Claremont’s data attracts a challenge from Flow physicist Hatide Roynold. The two of them put their work together and predict the Flow will reestablish after a period of instability, which has already reopened a path to the lost Dalasysla habitat. The Emporox sends an expedition there to check for survivors, and Claremont is surprised to find evidence the Flow was manipulated in the past to isolate the Empire. Meanwhile more streams are failing. Can Grayland II keep control of the Empire? How can she plan for the future?

Like The Collapsing Empire, this is a quick, entertaining read. Scalzi’s strong point is in the plotting and the politics, where he plays the different factions against one another in a cat and mouse game for power and influence. The dialog tends to the snappy and cynical, and the nobility comes off as self-absorbed and somewhat hedonistic. The power players are mostly women and Emperox Grayland II shows considerable growth in this installment, moving from an inexperienced girl to a woman controlling the reins of power.

On the not so great side, this is all brash, surface-level entertainment, which means there’s no depth in the characters. The snappy dialog really is great in producing interesting players, but then Scalzi treats them as expendable—don’t get attached to any of them. Kiva Lagos seems almost a caricature, and her sexual exploits seem slyly contrived as a hook for some readers. Also on the negative side, Scalzi hasn’t done much in the way of projection into the future. We meet a couple of advanced AIs, but most of the population is still using “computers” and “tablets” the same way we do now. Surely a space-going population like this would have better technology.

A fun read, but not much depth. Three and a half stars.

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So, who reads science fiction anyway?

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The last blog generated a discussion of whether science fiction can be called conservative at all because of its nature as speculative fiction. Following up online, I see opposing opinions about whether science fiction is inherently conservative or inherently liberal. There’s not nearly as much research on the demographics of the speculative fiction market as there should be, but in this post, I’ll try to have a look at some results.

First, what kind of people in general read science fiction? One writer-conducted market survey found that science fiction readers account for about 20% of the US population, are wealthier than the average, are about 57 percent male and tend to reduce their reading volume between the ages of 45-65. Also—no surprise—SF readers are people who read a lot. One study found that speculative fiction fans consistently consume high volumes of books, TV and films, which the authors considered “cognitively beneficial.” This study also found that SF as a genre has a strong effect on the way the public perceives and accepts science. Another study showed that science fiction in popular culture has a real effect on public attitudes. The authors suggest this is a literacy effect, where consuming scary media about “killer robots,” for example, affected opinions about development of autonomous weapons.

Other research shows that science fiction readers are more mature in their social relationships than readers of other genres. Fans who scored as knowledgeable about SF on the Genre Familiarity Test also scored higher on the Relationships Belief Inventory, while romance readers scored lower. In contrast, another study found that readers of romance and suspense/thrillers had higher interpersonal sensitivity/empathy scores than science-fiction/fantasy fans. Again, this isn’t really a surprise.

People read fiction for a variety of reasons, and escapism seems to be high on the list. Education is likely up there, too, where people are interested in broadening their horizons—science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, after all. However, most of us would still like to read texts that reaffirm our beliefs and values rather than something that challenges them. That leads us to the question of worldviews (i.e. politics). So how do worldviews affect reading habits?

Here’s an interesting study that found a preference for different disciplines in science reading material. For example, liberals tend to like theoretical disciplines including anthropology, biology, astronomy, physics and (surprise) engineering. On the other hand, conservatives tend to prefer applied disciplines including medicine, law and (surprise) climate change. Analyzing the results, the authors conclude that “scientific puzzles appeal more to the left, while problem-solving appeals more to the right.”

Another study conducted on Goodreads found that conservatives tend to prefer escapist, “low-brow” genre fiction and recent book-to-movie titles, and liberals tend to read more “high-brow” novels that win prizes. According to the authors, these results support the worst, polarizing stereotypes of “sophisticated” readers (liberals) versus “simple-minded” readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives). However, the authors also discovered a sizable number of non-partisan books that bridged the gap between liberals and conservatives. And, it turned out to be generally conservatives who were more engaged in producing this space for cultural compromise.

I didn’t find anything at all about the relative size of the conservative versus liberal audience, which suggests it’s a topic for original research. Anybody?

Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race

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Since I discussed ethnicity and culture in the last Daredevil post, maybe this is a good time to go back to the Silverberg/Jemisin issue that played out after the events of WorldCon 2018. For anyone who’s been under a rock and missed the whole thing, Silverberg was displeased by Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her 3rd Best Novel win. In a discussion group he thought was private, he commented that he thought her conduct at the ceremony had been graceless and offensively political. He was immediately attacked as a sexist and racist. He made various attempts to defend himself against these charges, which were labeled just more evidence that he didn’t recognize his own shortcomings.

This is a fairly common occurrence these days, where someone makes a comment they think is a reasonable opinion, or even a private one in this case, and then is mercilessly attacked. I’ve commented before that the accuracy of the charges doesn’t really seem to be a question, only that it’s taken as an opportunity to attack, generally by the enforcers of a particular political agenda. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to say who’s right in the Silverberg/Jemisin fuss. What I want to look at is the cultural conflict that’s playing out behind this kind of conversation.

Because cultural norms and expectations are permanently in the process of negotiation, researchers consider them to be a contested zone. Culture is something that moves and changes, sometimes very quickly and sometimes hardly at all. It can be based on specific locale, with different norms just a few miles down the road, or it can be based on group membership, when a person’s expectations about how other people should behave is defined by social groupings within their culture. This means that when Silverberg, a past award winner, complained about Jemisin’s speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it meant she hadn’t met his expectations about how an award winner ought to behave. In particular, he seemed to be complaining about the political content of her speech.

Presumably if Jemisin had said something supportive of the SFF community’s history and values, praised its elders, etc., everything would have been just fine. However, she apparently considers herself a political activist and uses her speaking opportunities to attack institutions for their shortcomings, rather than saying things that show her support of the group—in this case she accused the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minority aspirations, i.e. racism. This tactic is meant to be provocative, as Jemisin is calling attention to the fact that the community doesn’t meet her standards. Her comments did trigger a conversation of sorts, but basically a disruptive one that generated hard feelings all around.

Actually, the reception for Jemisin’s speech seemed to be fairly warm at the time, and folks like Silverberg who were offended remained polite about it. It was only later when he thought he was in a private venue that he revealed his offense. So, were her comments appropriate? There’s where the question of culture and the “contested zone” comes in. It’s been fairly common in recent years for award winners to take an opportunity for political statements. See the Academy Awards, for example. However, there is always a backlash. This tactic is a matter of trying to force cultural change, rather than encouraging it. Why not have a conversation about solidarity instead?

Review of Integration (Ghost Marines Book 1) by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novel is military SF, released by Semper Fi Press on 25 April 2018. It runs 242 pages and is the first novel of a series. The second novel, Unification (Ghost Marines Book 2), was released in August, 2018, and Fusion is forthcoming. Integration was a 2018 Dragon Award Finalist for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. Brazee’s novelette “Weaponized Math,” from The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3, was a 2018 Nebula finalist. This review may contain spoilers.

Leefe is Wyntonian, a non-human from Hope Hollow. When he is still a child, his home settlement is attacked by human slavers, and the community is saved by Imperial Marines. Three tri-years later, the new Emperor of the Empire announces a plan to integrate non-humans into the Imperial Marines. The now-adult Leefen, remembering his admiration for the soldiers who rescued him, volunteers to be one of the first group of Wyntonians to apply for induction. This move by the Emperor is clearly a political strategy to unify the Empire, and all the Wyntonians are warned about failing. In order to become a real marine, Leefen will have to pass testing to achieve induction, get through boot camp, and most importantly, overcome the racism of humans who spitefully call Wyntonians “ghosts.” Does he have what it takes?

The story details Leefen experiences of the induction and training process, then carries on into his service deployments, including a mission to rescue hostages and—coming full circle, a final one to rescue the helpless captives of outlaw slavers. The main theme is the importance of the process that integrates the raw recruits into a cohesive unit, and how they try to confront and defeat prejudice by finding common ground and kinship with humans.

This is a smooth read with a minimal action line. There’s a certain amount of violence, of course, but it’s tailored to support the main theme of unity. The characters are well-developed. The politics in the Empire is suggested, but not detailed. Leefen is offered a political post when his enlistment is up, but avoids it for the moment. There are plenty of interesting leads here that I expect will develop in book 2.

Four stars.

Wrap up of the 2018 Ideation Ratings

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, professor, writer and literary critic Tom Leclair says he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.”

As a political battle has developed over the SFF awards in recent years, somehow this approach to the nominations seems to have gotten lost for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Some of the recent finalists and/or winners have been called out as political propaganda, having little or no substance beyond emotional appeal, poorly written, etc. Things have settled down a little this year, as the traditionalist have made their point and pretty much left liberals in control of these two awards. The finalists for the Nebulas, given by industry professionals, seems to have been a serious striving for diversity of genre as well as author in the nomination process–an effort to be fair. Still, the list of winners ends up with crowd appeal, but not much to contribute to the “literature of ideas.” Totaling up the scores, I’ve given the winners an average Ideation score of 2.05. The Nebula finalists included Autonomous, “a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history,” but it didn’t win.

The differences between the Nebula and the Hugo finalist list mostly subtracted ideas and quality works rather than adding to them. I suppose this is something we can expect, as the Hugo finalists are elected by a close group of WorldCon members and their tastes are, for this reason, very limited. However, they did come up with the five star idea man, Kim Stanley Robinson. I may revisit this when the list of winners is available. Robinson won the Nebula the last time he put out a novel, but he didn’t even appear in the list of finalists this time. We’ll see how much the climate has changed since 2013.

I’m thinking Robinson may not win for the same reason Newitz didn’t win—his book is hard to read. It’s long, it’s got small print, and it’s full of economics. Nobody wants to deal with that anymore. I’m expecting WorldCon members are going to go for Scalzi or Jemisin instead.

The Continuing Feminization of Major SFF Awards?

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If anyone noticed, all four of the 2017 Nebula fiction winners were women. In 2016 William Ledbetter was the single male winner in the novelette category. In 2015 all the winners were women. In 2014 Jeff VanderMeer was the single male winner in the novel category. In 2013 all the winners were women. You have to go back to 2012 to find equity, when Kim Stanley Robinson and Andy Duncan won in the novel and novelette categories and Nancy Kress and Aliette de Bodard won in the novelette and short story categories. At least the 2017 Nebula finalists indicated an effort toward sexual diversity, as the list included at least one man in each category, with the total ending up at 5/25 or 20%.

For the 2018 Hugo, only the novel category has even the possibility of a male winner. In 2017 all the Hugo winners were women. Same for 2016. 2015 was a weird year, when No Award won two of the categories and Liu Cixin and Thomas Olde Heuvelt won the other two. You have to go back to 2014 to find equity, where Charles Stross won the novella category and John Chu won the short story category, while Ann Leckie won in the novel category and Mary Robinette Kowal won for the best novelette. For the 2018 Hugos this year, the number of men in the list of finalists is 2/24 or just 8%.

In 2017 the World Fantasy Award short and long fiction winners were all women. Same for 2016. In 2015, the winners were all men, and in 2014 there was a mix of 2 women and 1 man. You’ll never get equity in this one, as there are only three categories.

I’ve not done a statistical analysis, but just looking at the results, especially for the Nebula and Hugo Awards, suggests a definite trend for female winners. Last year I noticed a flurry of articles about the triumph for diversity in the awards because of all female winners in the face of continued prejudice, etc., but this year I haven’t seen much of that type comment, although one article did note that women had dominated “yet again.” Instead, the remarks seemed to be more about racial diversity and Jemisin’s third win in a row.

So, can I gather from this result that there’s a certain discomfort growing about the continued domination of women in the awards? Even Jemisin might be getting suspicious. She didn’t bother to show up to collect her third Nebula, apparently preferring to stay home and write on her current project instead.

In the early years of the science fiction awards, men always dominated, of course. So, why are men suddenly writing so poorly? Clearly this isn’t just a problem with white men, since in 2017 Asian, Hispanic, black and Native American men didn’t measure up, either. So, why not? Why is what the women wrote so much better?

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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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