Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three 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?

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 The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This novella is volume 6 of the Penric and Desdemona tales, following Mira’s Last Dance. It was published by Spectrum Literary Agency in October 2017 and runs about 139 pages.

Temple sorcerer and demon host Penric and his friend the widowed Nikys have successfully escaped to the duchy of Orbas, but Penric has put off returning to his work as a temple scholar, hoping Nikys will accept a proposal of marriage. She stalls, concerned about the chaos demon that Penric always carries around with him. However, she accidentally intercepts a letter to her brother saying her mother has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in Cedonia. She comes to Penric for help. Can the two of them rescue mom? Will Nikys ever accept Penric’s proposal of marriage?

Like all the other novellas in this continuing story, this is a quick, entertaining read. The novella is nothing really profound, but Bujold is an accomplished writer and her characters are well-developed, absorbing and entertaining. The world is pretty well built by now, and I don’t have any problems visualizing the houses, towns or shrines. I thought Mira’s Last Dance was a little weird, but maybe it was all to put Nikys off. She’s having to make up her mind here if she can buy the package deal.

Recommended. Three and a half stars.

Review of “That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn

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This short story is a Hugo finalist published by Tor.com in March 2016.

Enith and Gaant have been at war. Although they have reached a peace agreement, there are war casualties on both sides. Calla is a military nurse from Enith and receives a message from the Gaant Major Lan that she met during the war. “I would like to see you, and bring the game if you can,” he says. The Gaant are telepathic and the Enith are not, but Calla bravely sets off with her chess set. She and Lan have a complex past, as each has been the other’s prisoner. She finds him in a hospital and the two set up a game, begin to play. Soon others of the doctors and nurses are offering suggestions.

Pros: This is a fairly straightforward story that reviews the experiences the two had together during the war and emphasizes their losses and their kindness to one another. Finding something in common (the game) clearly brings them closer, and their relationship affects the surrounding individuals, as well. I gather this is about overcoming differences and appreciating the kindness of others.

Cons: The story suffers from limited world building and scope, and I ended up with little idea of the greater politics (what caused the war?), the cultures or what the world looks like. Without the telepathy, this wouldn’t be speculative fiction. The characters are not clearly drawn, and I came away without much of an idea about how anyone or anything looks. It relies on emotion to carry it, but (jaded me) didn’t feel a whole lot. It’s a noble message, but not outstanding in execution.

Three stars.

Analog, Hard SF and the Hugos

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RE the last blog, I don’t mean to pick on Michael A. Burstein. Other Analog authors have similar track records; for example, this year’s nominee Michael F. Flynn, who’s been nominated seven times for a Hugo without any wins. These go back a ways, too—and I thought Flynn was an entertaining writer. I’m starting to wonder how Vinge slipped through in 2004.

Trevor Quachri did an interview in 2013 after he took over as editor of Analog, which can be found here. When asked what he’s looking for, he says he’s mainly interested in the science content of stories, which suggests writing style isn’t one of his main criteria. After all, he says, writing issues can be edited easier than the underlying ideas. Quachri also says Analog publishes a high number of previously unpublished authors, which also results in less-polished writing styles. As I already said, I’m suspicious of the stated science content of the stories, but both these policies are going to reduce the likelihood Analog will win at the Hugos or the Nebulas, either one.

Having looked at the situation, I can see why the Puppies’ nominating committee picked what they did from Analog. They’ve chosen established authors, at least. I’m not sure what to think of this. On the one hand, Analog is holding the fort against invasions from MFAs writing fantasy and magical realism. They’re also providing opportunity for new writers. On the other hand, the lack of character development in the stories means they’re not taken seriously in the awards. Looking back at Hullender’s reading list, will some of the top 10-15% of SF stories really be found here? What’s the criteria?

Slates and Hugo reading lists

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Edward Lear
I got a comment on the last blog from Greg Hullender about the difference between a “slate” and recommendations. Greg and Eric Wong operate a website called Rocket Stack Rank that reads, reviews and ranks stories from pro magazines including, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Apex, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Their express purpose is to make it easier for people to find stories to nominate for the Hugo Awards, and Greg notes in his comment that the Rocket Stack list only represents the authors’ tastes and not any political agenda. Because I am now a WorldCon member and faced with making a responsible effort to nominate stories next year, I really appreciate this. I also appreciate the annual Locus recommended reading list as a helpful aid, along with efforts from other well-known reviewers. However, as a writer, there is something about these lists that bothers me.

Like everyone else, the authors of the lists are swamped with the amount of material out there, which means they have to make choices. This is usually to read award-winning pro magazines and anthologies, expecting what Greg calls the top 10-15% of outstanding stories will be located there. Locus has a broader recommendation list than Rocket Stack, as presumably they have a larger staff to read. As the Sad/Rabid Puppies suggest, these listings can’t help but include the authors’ social and literary biases. The end result of using these lists to prep for nominations, of course, is that a large body of SF&F writing is totally eliminated from consideration. It also helps insure the same magazines win the award over and over again. Because some pro magazines have low scores on diversity scales, this also reduces the likely diversity of the awards and contributes to the likelihood the same winners will be nominated over and over, to the detriment of writers who may be off-beat and brilliant, but publishing on the fringes.

I don’t have any solution to this problem. It’s just bothering me.

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