Review of Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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This is a sort-of science fiction novel and a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga in April 2018 and runs about 304 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Has-been glam rocker Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the only musician left of the Absolute Zeros, are approached to perform in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a song contest that’s open to any alien race—with a little catch. Species that come in last at their first contest are pronounced non-sentient “meat” and eradicated from existence. Can Dess and Oort overcome self-doubt and competitor sabotage to rescue humankind from extermination?

This seems to be satirical absurdist humor. It rocks along at a reasonably fast pace with a lead in that gives us the history of the Sentience Wars, with the competition, like the Eurovision Contest, launched as a way to move forward in a more civilized fashion. The satirical part seems to be about racism. Or maybe the music business. Or maybe both? High points: Aliens decide against evaluating Earth’s house cats as a sentient species. Dess’ lost love Mira Wonderful Star asks him to marry her. The immigrant Oort works hard at being normal to escape police interest and eventually rescues humanity with a Christmas carol. Also on the positive side, Valente gets a lot of credit for keeping a narrative like this going for 300 plus pages.

On the not so positive side, this won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. It has minimal plot and most of it is complete nonsense about non-existent, not-especially-believable alien species doing weird things and making weird music. Because of the absurdist quality, I didn’t connect with the characters well. The ending was clearly foreshadowed, so didn’t surprise me.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

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This novella is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s published by Tor.com and runs 202 pages. It follows the previous award-winning novellas Binti and Binti: Home and finishes out the Binti trilogy. This review contains spoilers.

This book takes up where Binti: Home leaves off. After finishing her first year at Oomza Uni, Binti has returned home to go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe, and brought the Meduse Okwu as an ambassador of peace to her people. However, instead of completing the pilgrimage, she has a vision and travels into the desert with a boy named Mwinyi, where she is inoculated in the ways of her father’s people the Enyi Zinariya. On the way home, she experiences frightening visions of her home the Root burning. While she was gone into the desert, the Khoush people have used Okwu’s presence as an excuse to attack the Root. Once home, Binti finds her family is gone, along with many of the Khoush, but Okwu has survived. Now the Meduse are massing for an attack on the Khoush forces. Her people the Himba are angry with her for bringing this conflict on them. Can she harmonize the situation? Or will she lose her own life instead?

On the positive side, this continues the progressive themes from Binti: Home about trying to harmonize relations between different races and calling out racial prejudice. Binti takes on responsibility for bringing multiculturalism and different ways to her people, even though she is reviled and distrusted for it. At the end of the book, she is not only half Himba and half Enyi Zinariya, but she has also absorbed Meduse DNA and microbes from the living ship New Fish. Some of the juxtapositions here struck me as quite charming: for example, while Binti weeps in the smoldering ruins of the Root, Mwinyi’s camel Rakumi eats her brother’s vegetable garden.

On the not so positive side, the first part of this novella is messy and hard to follow, as it involves Binti’s nightmare visions of her family dying in the flames of the Root. Once we’re back home, the horrific nightmare continues as conflict plays out between the Khoush and the Meduse on the Himba lands. Questions about the tech carry over from earlier installments of the series. Binti’s use of treeing, or running math equations to generate a “current” remain unexplained, as is the question of whether the desert people’s communications system is some kind of nanotech. This also gets into Disneyesque territory, where instead of using her training, Binti loses it and screams at the elders of her village. It appears they understand that she’s right and will do what she wants, but in this case the council stands her up and leaves her to deal with the war on her own. Then Binti’s visions turn out to be false. She brings conflict to her tribe’s lands, fails to stop the war, barely escapes with her life, and finally retreats to the safety of Oomza Uni to be with her friends. This suggests that trying to bring multiculturalism to entrenched tribes isn’t that rewarding.

As usual, the author’s theme and symbolism are strongly developed, but the writing is a bit messy. This has a more negative feel than previous installments.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

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This novel is alternate history/science fiction and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It was published by Tor and runs 424 pages. Full disclosure: Kowal is the incoming president of the SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

Physicist Elma and her husband aerospace engineer Nathanial York are vacationing in the Poconos when a huge meteor flashes overhead. It strikes in the Chesapeake Bay area, destroying Washington D.C. and much of the Northeastern US. The Yorks shelter under an overhang and end up cut and bruised but okay. They find Elma’s Cessna is intact inside a hangar at the local airfield and fly out to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Elma was a pilot during WWII and tries to volunteer to help relocate refugees, but is refused. She, Nathaniel and her brother Hershel do some research and predict that the meteor strike will result in first, colder weather because of dust, then rising temperatures because of steam in the air. They think this is an extinction event. They successfully pitch this analysis to the new President (previously Secretary of Agriculture) Brennan. As a result, the government pours resources into a space program with Nathaniel as lead engineer, hoping to establish a space station and a moon base before the earth becomes uninhabitable in about 50 years. Meanwhile, Elma lobbies to be included in the program as a female astronaut. Can they develop successful space colonies before it’s too late to save the people of Earth?

This seems to be a mashup of Stephenson’s Seveneves, Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and maybe a couple of other works, where a massive disaster forces humanity to consider evacuation of Earth, while women scientists and pilots are brushed off as not really qualified to help. It also points out the sexist attitudes of the US 1950s, when women were forced from factory jobs back into domestic roles after WWII, and racism where Jim Crow laws kept African Americans from equality. This is very character driven with strongly developed characters who agonize over heavy responsibilities and upcoming disasters. Events feel very real. Elma and Nathaniel’s relationship is very tender and supportive, and Elma (regardless of her anxiety) manages to establish herself as a strong role model for young girls.

On the not so positive side, there are some big suspension of disbelief issues here. First, Wernher von Braun was the father of the US space program for a reason. The Third Reich stole billions from Jewish families that went into research and development for the German war effort. At the end of the war, captured scientists from these programs were divided up between the US and USSR, which gave both governments a head start in space technology. The USSR made the first advances all the way along, until the US managed to land the first men on the moon in 1969. So, it’s not that easy to move Von Braun out of the picture. How are his experience and know-how going to be replaced by a homegrown Jewish aerospace engineer with black friends in 1952? I know it’s a nice thought, but it ain’t going to happen. Next, Elma is represented as a hotshot war-time pilot who brought down three Messerschmitt fighter planes while flying an unarmed Mustang. However, she suffers from crippling anxiety attacks at the very idea of people looking at her (especially men), apparently because she went to university as a young teen and was stuck in STEM classes with jealous, unwelcoming males. This means she is paralyzed at the idea of speaking in Congressional committee meetings and vomits repeatedly backstage at the Mr. Wizard show. Dear, Elma: You’re going to have a hard time making it as an astronaut. It’s a tough job and requires that you deal well with people, politics and the media. You can’t do it hiding in the bathroom. Plus, taking tranquilizers to deal with it is the worst feminine stereotype. Next, with the Northeastern US pretty much devastated by the meteor strike, the government moves the capital and the new space program to Kansas City. Proximity to the equator gives a speed boost to any launch; plus rockets that fail in Kansas City take out farm families. Dear Nathaniel: There are reasons why the US launches from Florida and Southern California out across the oceans. These are called the Eastern and Western Test Ranges—your wife should not have to tell you this. Next, I dunno what the government is thinking in pouring all those resources into an iffy space program while everyone seems totally blasé about the world ending. Where’s the urgency here? Maybe they don’t want panic? Then they better get their butts in gear for a real solution. A space habitat they can build in 50 years from a dead start is only going to hold a few hundred people; plus, the rocket launches are a huge offender for greenhouse gases, making things worse. And Elma has her nose out of joint because she’s not going to be the first woman in space? Suck it up, girl. And last, I don’t know why Elma is in such a lather that women will be excluded from a moon colony. In 1608 the Virginia Company of London offered huge incentives for women to immigrate as brides to the Jamestown colony. The French emptied women’s prisons and kidnapped women off the streets to populate New Orleans. Dear Elma: Don’t worry. This problem will take care of itself.

Well written story in many ways, but full of eye-rollers. Three and a half stars.

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.

Identifying with Characters Different from You

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Some time back, after reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I wondered in the blog about how deeply readers from different ethnic groups and different cultures identify with the protagonists in stories. This seems like a timely subject, as there’s been a recent movement in the SFF community toward “own voices,” complaints about cultural appropriation and comments about how POC need to be the only ones to write about characters that reflect their own heritage. The scenario in the novel was that Ruff’s (culturally appropriated) Jim Crow era African American characters were represented as enjoying the works of classical SF writers now attacked as racist (Asimov and Bradbury). It’s uncertain whether Ruff meant this as irony, but he writes it dead-pan, as if his characters really are classic era SF geeks.

The novel is quite a mash-up of social taboos, and given the current climate, I’m really surprised there weren’t more complaints about the book being a) published and b) nominated for awards. However, it did raise the interesting question about identifying with characters from other races. I didn’t really get an answer from POC in the comments on my blog, so I went looking. Here’s an interesting perspective from Turkish-American Elif Batuman writing for the New Yorker.

As you might expect, Batuman describes no problems in using 1) suspension of disbelief and 2) imaginative projection to identify with alien characters. For example, to read period works, Batuman says, you have to BE the privileged, upper class male Englishman in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This means that for the purposes of reading, you have to shift your perspectives of race, gender, social class, religion and whatever other characteristics are present in order to feel what the character is feeling and worry about his or her conflicts. Along the way, you broaden your own horizons and learn about other worldviews, some of them historical, some fantastical, some science fictional, etc. This makes perfectly good sense, and I’m sure it’s been experienced by avid readers everywhere.

Where this breaks down, Batuman says, is when she runs across references to “Turks” in these old books that betray attitudes toward her own ethnic group. This event jars her out of her projection and back to the reality of evaluating “expired social values.” As I read this, mention of Turks is one problem that she snags on, and the other is the insulting quality of the references. Presumably the first really can’t be fixed in contemporary writing, but the second one can.

Everyone is pointing out that the SFF community readership is getting more diverse. So, is “own voices” the solution for problems like this? Will it remove the speed bumps to suspension of disbelief? Or (there’s always the Law of Unintended Consequences to consider) could “own voices” just reduce diversity by segregating the SFF readership into more strictly separate groups?

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, which 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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