Review of The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

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This novella one goes back a ways. It is billed as Elantris, Book II, was released by Brandon Sanderson’s self-publishing company Dragonsteel Entertainment in 2012 and won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2013. It runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Shai is a forger. She is caught in the palace trying to replace the Moon Scepter with her own forgery, and is offered a bargain by the Emperor’s councilor Gaotona. The Empress has been killed by an assassin and Emperor Ashravan left brain dead. If he doesn’t emerge from his chambers at the end of the mourning period and take control of the government, the empire will dissolve into chaos. Imprisoned in a decrepit chamber, Shai is charged with forging a new soul for the Emperor while the nobles who know of his condition maneuver for position. She starts to research the emperor’s life, seriously doubting whether she can create a soul. Shouldn’t she concentrate on a workable escape plan instead?

As usual, Sanderson provides a mysterious, talented protagonist who has her own failings, puts her in major jeopardy and lets the story play out to a satisfying resolution. The world building and details about how the magic works give this an extra layer of quality. Shai is in conflict with Gaotona and with others of the Emperor’s entourage, imprisoned with dark blood magic and under pressure from her own ambitions as well as those of the nobles and staff. Besides that, doesn’t she have an obligation to the empire to give them an effective ruler, as well?

On the not so positive side, I was a little disappointed that Gaotona’s character didn’t take on more depth here. There was also an opportunity to expand on the lives of other characters, including Frava, leader of the opposition, and the Bloodsealer who keeps Shai imprisoned. This would have given us better character dynamics, but maybe the length of the work affected the character developments. Regardless, this accomplishes what it needs to and gives us a positive upbeat ending. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Writer Walter Mosley Quits Star Trek: Discovery

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So, this is still a very interesting cultural collision that I think is worth discussion. Again, here’s my comment that was censored by Mike Glyer at File 770: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Why did Glyer think this would generate an uncomfortable discussion? One comment on the story at File 770 suggested Mosley’s reaction was about privilege and entitlement. Is this the problem we can’t talk about?

There have been previous issues with the use of abusive language at this particular studio, which may have set up, at least, encouragement by Human Resources to report any language that might lead to discomfort among the writers, if not a mandatory reporting rule. Next, Mosley has a very light complexion, so it’s possible some onlookers may not have realized he considers himself African American (and therefore, by US custom, entitled to use the N-word without sanction). Accordingly, here’s what he says about it: “If I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job.”

If neither of these issues above supports why someone reported him to HR, then is it possible the issue is something similar to the NRA suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for calling them terrorists, or Ahrvid Engholm filing a complaint about Jeanette Ng’s Hugo-acceptance speech where she seemed to associate white males with the word fascist? In other words, backlash. Was the reporting co-worker annoyed that Mosley was exercising some sort of special privilege and entitlement in using the N word?

Some prominent discussions have recently emerged about the success of minority groups in American culture, in particular, and how this generates backlash. For example, over-achieving Asian students recently sued Harvard University for discrimination in Affirmative Action admissions. Jews are perennially targeted for their economic success. And, likewise, black Americans are becoming concerned that backlash from other groups will curtail some of the gains they’ve made. Some sources frankly called the Mosley case an example of cultural backlash against a minority writer. Mosley, himself, called it an action of the political culture, writing: “I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable.”

So, how do we sort this kind of conflict out? Is Mosley responding from a position of privilege and entitlement, or does he have a real case that the N word is necessary to express his life experience? Comments?

Is the term “racist” losing its meaning?

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One thing that’s emerged from the US political campaigning in the last week or so is the willingness of EVERYONE, to scream that the other side is racist. This is a problem that’s been growing for a while. In 2017 John Worther wrote a piece for CNN where he notes that liberals overuse both the terms “racist” and “white supremacist,” mostly as a way to shut down discussion or as a weapon to fight other social philosophies. So far, this has been fairly successful. Universities, companies, government, publishers–all have stopped what they were doing when called racist, evaluated, apologized and changed their policies in an effort to better accommodate minorities. We’ve reached the point; however, that people on all sides seem by default to call the other’s attitudes and comments racist. This suggests that the term has become just meaningless name calling.

Worse, in many cases it seems clear that people are crying “racist” when they don’t get their way, or are not allowed the additional privilege they expect based on their personal achievements and/or ethnic group. This is something that whites have been doing for a long time, but now it seems minorities are doing it, too. In 2018, for example, US African American skater Shani Davis called the results of a coin toss racist when he didn’t win the opportunity to represent the US in the Olympic opening ceremonies. About the same time, Fox News president John Moody was vilified for commenting that athlete choices for the Olympics should be based on ability rather than race, pointing out that that the Summer Olympics, for example, normally has a much higher number of black athletes than the Winter Olympics.

One of the problems with claiming “cultural appropriation” is that it defines particular elements of culture as belonging to some racial or ethnic group. This also suggests that ethnic culture should not be exchanged or modified in any way in encounters with other cultures. Doesn’t this damage everyone?

Since I mentioned attacks on Zoe Saldena for not being black enough for a movie role in the last post, I thought maybe I should go on and look at some related issues. About the same time, Scarlet Johansson withdrew from a starring role as a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug. The attacks on Saldena didn’t really start until the movie was ready for release, so were something of an embarrassment but not a deal killer. However, the Rub & Tug project seems to have stalled after Johansson withdrew. This is basic economics. A big name star attracts investors, who want to make money on their investment. If the film tanks with an unknown in the starring role, they won’t get beans. Apparently none of Hollywood’s transgender actors have been able to inspire confidence, so the movie is likely dead. Isn’t this retrograde progress for the transgender community, if not downright bad press?

Johansson said a lot of nice, politically correct things at the time, but she also mentioned that she thought actors should be able to play any role they wanted, which caused a definite kerfuffle. This same discussion about “cultural appropriation” is going on in the publishing world. What happens if we limit actors/writers/publishers to playing only to their own ethnic group?

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

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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.

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.

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?

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