Review of Transmission by Morgan Rice

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This novella is young adult science fiction and is listed as Book 1 of the Invasion Chronicles. It is self-published and runs 187 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Kevin and his mom get the news that he’s been diagnosed with a rare brain disease and only has about six months to live. Symptoms of his disease include fainting spells and hallucinations including visions of alien landscapes and strings of numbers. All the adults tell Kevin he should ignore this and that treatment might help, but his friend Luna thinks the number strings might be important. A quick Google indicates these are the coordinates for the Trappist star system. Should Kevin notify SETI that he’s receiving alien transmissions? What if they don’t believe him?

This book is billed as young adult, but my estimation is that it’s more middle grade level. It’s seems a bit simplistic for young adult, which often includes fairly adult themes these days. This a quick, easy read and the story flows along well, including a slightly humorous take on the adult characters and the various government organizations that blunder through the alien contact. The theme seems to be cooperation. The tone is fairly low key, even when things start to go wrong, and Kevin’s mom is always there to stand between him and anything bad coming his way. Plus, Luna remains his faithful friend.

On the not so positive side, it’s nice but not really believable that Kevin successfully mediates the adult arguments going on between all the different agencies and governments that get involved in this. The build-up is different and refreshing, but the resulting alien invasion scheme was old in 1950 and, of course, nothing at all gets solved in this book, which likely just serves as the intro to Book II of the Invasion Chronicles. There are a couple of plot holes, which may or may not be explained later. And also, the fact that everybody is lurching around like a zombie at the end of this sort of undermines Kevin’s “I told you so” moment.

Three stars.

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Review of Avengers: Endgame

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It follows The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and features a large cast of superheroes, including Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Rudd as Antman, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Karen Gillian as Nebula and Josh Brolin as Thanos, etc., etc., etc., while Stan Lee makes his final cameo. This review contains spoilers.

After Thanos uses the Infinity Gauntlet to disintegrate half of all living things in the universe, Tony Stark and Nebula are rescued from space by Captain Marvel. The Avengers who are left organize and go after Thanos. Thor kills him, but this does nothing to reverse what Thanos has done. Back on Earth, everyone tries to get on with life, but they have to deal with the huge losses. Existence is hard and bitter, but they try to make new lives. Meanwhile, Scott Lang (a.k.a. Antman) has been stuck in the quantum realm since the catastrophe. Five years later he manages to find his way out. He takes stock of the situation and approaches Captain America and Black Widow with a plan to go back in time to reverse Thanos’ actions. Can the Avengers pull off a complex plan to capture the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get them? Can they create a new Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and bring back everything that was lost?

Good points: This movie has a little of everything: humor, pathos, love. It’s an ambitious script, and a lot of it goes by really fast. This is one possible explanation for the way it’s blown past USD$2B box office take in just a couple of weeks—people are going back to see it more than once because they missed a lot the first time around. It takes the main characters back in time for a brief visit with people they’ve lost, and in some cases, provides a do-over. For example, Gamora, who was sacrificed in Infinity War, gets a second chance. However, some other people apparently don’t and seem to be permanently dead. This may reflect the retirements of some of the bigger stars, including Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ), Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson. Rocket the Raccoon is, as usual, a huge star in this film. The script didn’t tie up everything, though, which suggests a direction for future films: Loki got away with the Tesseract at the end of Infinity War, which sequence is reviewed in this film, and Carol Danvers’ not-a-cat puked it up at the end of Captain Marvel. Does this mean more time travels lie in our heroes’ futures?

On the not so positive side, this was a three hour movie that hurried through everything, suggesting they might have broken it up into two or three films and made better use of their stars. One big issue with putting all these highly charismatic people together is in suppressing the charisma to make clear leads. In all the Avenger films, it’s clear that Iron Man and Captain America are expected to be the leads, with Black Widow as a strong second. This probably reflects their seniority, contracts and the amounts they’re being paid. However, there are clearly obstacles to this plan. The first is Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor). In some of the other films, he’s had very few lines, and in this one, the script makes him into a cartoon figure. Surprise, surprise—Hemsworth is good for it. He does comedy well, too. Maybe this is supposed to demonstrate the dangers of alcoholism, but regardless, the role he’s given is offensive and smacks of body shaming. Ruffalo, also a strong personality, is disguised with CGI. Other obstacles include Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Pratt as Star Lord, both of whom could steal the movie in a heartbeat. The directors were apparently expecting trouble here, though, so both are given very minimal appearances. In a three movie sequence, characters like these could have been given better roles and more screen time to develop subplots and make the film less jam-packed and hurried. Given the loose Tesseract and the fact that Thor went off with the Guardians at the end of this, we might expect they’ll get to follow up in future films, or maybe TV shows on Disney’s streaming service. Last, if RDJ, Evans and Johannson are all retiring, this will be a huge hit to the MCU films. Disney’s choices for replacement so far, like Brie Larson as Captain Marvel and Don Cheadle as War Machine, don’t really have the charisma and presence to carry the roles.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2018 Nebula Award Winners!

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Novel: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

Novelette: “The Only Harmless Great Thing,” Brooke Bolander

Short Story: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Screenplay by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

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.

Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.

Review of “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Tor.com in July of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Saffron is the confection taster for the Regent Searle, serving as a hostage because her husband Danny is currently the Regent’s pastry chef. The Regent has grand dinners where he features the pastries and their magical effects of memory and emotion. Saffron takes her place at the Regent’s side. He seems to be in a good mood tonight, and the guests relax somewhat, expecting the dinner will go well. The first course is the Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth, and Saffron experiences the scene where she met and flirted with Danny for the first time. The memories grow darker as the dinner continues, featuring the agonized death of her sister at the Regent’s command. Is there any way Danny can poison the man and not kill her?

This is written in an artistic, low-key style, where even the descriptions of torture are understated. Saffron experiences bittersweet memories of better days, and of emotional pain, all the while smiling for the Regent and his guests as if nothing touches her. Danny, the unseen consummate artist, orchestrates the leisurely flow of the banquet, bringing it to a well-deserved close. There’s not much plot here, mostly backstory provided by the memory pastries and then a close, but it held my interest. The characters are well-developed, and there are loving descriptions of everything, especially the pastries.

On the less positive side, there’s no suspense here at all, and very little threat to Saffron and Danny expect their positions on the Regent staff—we just read along and the story unfolds. This means it leaves a good feeling, but I don’t think it’s going to be especially memorable except as an art piece.

Four 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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