Wrap Up of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award Reviews

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013, in a move to integrate the review and discussion site for direct promotion of its literary offerings. Goodreads analyzes the data from what they say includes hundreds of millions of books rated, reviewed, and added to their Want to Read Shelves in a given year to determine which books make the cut for the Opening Round. This is followed by Semifinal Round and a Final Round where site users are invited to vote for the winners. In 2019 there were 300 initial nominees with an average rating of 4 stars. Because the site is so powerful, it’s clearly important for authors to pay attention to how their books are received and reviewed there. That makes this pretty much a popularity award, though I expect it will be affected by factors like levels of promotion and influencers within the various Goodreads groups.

So, this went better than I expected. I don’t always like bestseller novels because I do like solid world building, strong characters and literary elements like theme and meaning. Although Crouch’s book was a little weak, I did like the novels the women authors wrote. One of the big advantages in reading for this award was that there seemed to be a minimum of political messages in the books. There were messages and themes, of course, but in general they were more social commentary than political screeds. These included the dangers of technology (Crouch) and the effects of power, abuse and bullying (Black). Bardugo’s book is a little harder to summarize, but also seems to be about abusing others for the purposes of achieving power.

These books seem to have won the awards pretty much on their entertainment value and for how they speak to the reader, rather than for their “diversity” or other characteristics. All three winners involve mainly white characters, except for Bardugo’s black Centurion, and all the authors are also white. Bardugo appears to be Jewish, and Crouch writes about gay characters fairly often, but hasn’t come out as gay that I can find with a quick search. Of the three, only Black seems to have been recognized by the SFF community; she won the Andre Norton Award in 2005 for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faery.

Since this went well, I’ll do it again next year. Stay tuned for the 2019 Nebula reviews.

Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Review of “You Have Arrived at Your Destination” by Amor Towles

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The story runs 46 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

Sam and his wife Annie are investigating the possibility of conceiving a child with the help of Vitek, a fertility lab. Sam has an appointment with Dr. Gerhardt, who explains how the firm’s genetic engineering options might influence the life of the couple’s projected son. With the help of Sam’s wife, Gerhardt’s staff has prepared three possible scenarios of how their child might live out his life. Disturbed after the appointment, Sam begins to reconsider the way he’s lived his own life. Instead of meeting Annie, he stops at a bar, The Glass Half Full, where he gets drunk and confides what’s going on to the bartender Nick and his new friend Beezer. Beezer thinks Vitek is a division of Raytheon (the defense contractor). Sam has already provided a sample for Vitek, and he’s two hours late and now he’s really in trouble. He tries to reach Annie, but he can’t, so he goes back to Vitek and bangs on the door. Can he get his sample back?

There’s a certain amount of symbolism in this work, and some social commentary. It jumps around quite a bit, like it doesn’t know quite what it wants to accomplish, from Gerhardt explaining how conforming to societal expectations is so important, to the disturbing life scenarios, to Sam looking back and rating his own and his father’s lives, to his growing remoteness from Annie, and finally to the revelation that Vitek might not be just a fertility clinic. The story has been marking time to get to that point, but when it gets there, it feels profound.

The plot is a bit jumbled, and I didn’t get a good feel for either the setting or the characters—but, the whole thing seems to be about ideas. When we start trusting some corporation to genetically engineer our children, what are we really going to end up with?

Four stars.

Review of Uncompromising Honor by David Weber

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This novel won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. It was published by Baen in October 2018 and is listed as the Honor Harrington Series Book #19. It runs 784 pages.

In the aftermath of the Yawata Strike, Manticore is rebuilding. Several star systems have referendums scheduled to vote on succeeding from the Solarian League and joining Manticore’s Grand Alliance. The oligarchy that runs the Solarian League, the Mandarins, considers this treason and launches Operation Buccaneer to damage the infrastructure of any star system evaluating succession. Expecting trouble in the founding-member Hypatia system, Alliance RMN rear admiral Jan Kotouč takes five ships to the system, where he defeats a large Solarian fleet commanded by Admiral Hadju Gyôzô, who has planned a Buccaneer attack without allowing for civilian evacuation. This is an Eridani Edict violation. The Solarian ships also fire on disabled Alliance ships, which is a violation of the Deneb Accords. After the Solarians attack Cachalot, they blame the large number of civilian deaths there on the Alliance navy. It is becoming clear that there is a third party playing the League against the Alliance, but attempts to capture their agents only result in their immediate deaths. The Alliance thinks this is a Mesan Alignment. They finally manage to capture a live agent, who bonds with a treecat. Meanwhile, the Mandarins are refusing to believe any third party is involved, and attack the Beowulf system. At the time, Beowulf is hosting an Alliance conference, meaning that a large number of government and naval officials are in attendance, including Hamish Alexander-Harrington, First Lord of Admiralty and Honor Harrington’s husband. The Solarians do little damage, but like the Cachalot engagement, bombs that go off after the fleet withdraws kill millions of civilians. Thinking her husband is dead, Honor goes after the Solarians. Is there any way she can stop the war?

I left a lot out of this summary. As I dropped into the series at episode #19 without any prior knowledge, it took me a while to sort it out. Weber didn’t help a lot, as he didn’t include any kind of summary or cast of characters to bring the reader up to speed. For anyone who’s totally desperate, Baen has a downloadable teacher’s guide on their website (mind-numbing, but informative) that does include a cast of characters and helps the uninformed sort out the League from the Alliance from the Alignment.

This has a lot of amazing positives, and I was duly impressed. Weber has an excellent command of plot, action, and world building and at least decent ability for characterization. Beyond that, he’s really good at setting up dramatic situations. There are at least three situations here that could develop into their own novel (and maybe will at a later date). This includes Kotouč and his second in command, both survivors of the engagement at Hypatia; Damien Harahap, the captured Alignment agent; and various treecats who are learning to shoot pulsars with their little hands. Another of Weber’s strong points is the details of the naval battles, including weapons systems, defense systems, military strategy and how all this would operate in the distance and physics of space. I’m wondering how he keeps track of it all, from characters to missile designations to battle strategy. He must have spreadsheets everywhere.

On the not so positive side, I wasn’t happy with the action line. The story is way too long and moves way too slowly. The action sequences are bracketed by endless discussion from a long line of different characters who try to figure out what the other side is up to and what they should do about it. This makes the novel an intrigue, rather than an adventure story, and bogs it down without advancing the plot much at all. Weber goes to all the work to develop interesting characters and situations (Kotouč, Harahap, armed treecats), and then totally drops them. Honor actually makes very few appearances until the end, apparently unconcerned about the issues until it becomes personal. There are also some inconsistencies; for example, if the Alliance uses regeneration to fix injuries, why does Honor still have artificial parts? I also ended up with unanswered questions about how the technology works, including fusion reactors and gravity compensation that will deal with 32K gees. Okay, this does have some wow factor, but really? And last, I’m wondering how the peace restrictions Honor demands of the Solarian League are going to work out. Won’t this leave the League defenseless against aspiring aggressors?

I’m thinking this novel didn’t quite know what it meant to accomplish. Weber adds a note at the end that he intends to retire Honor Harrignton, but continue to write in this universe. Maybe this was a springboard for other developments?

Four stars.

Review of Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

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I was sort of taken by “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a finalist on the 2019 Nebula ballot, so I went looking for more of Yudhanjaya’s work. This novel was originally self-published in 2017 and runs 300 pages. It was the winner of the 2017 Virtual FantasyCon Award. Yudhanjaya is Shri Lankan and has worked as a programmer, tech journalist and social researcher. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 2030 and Patrick Udo lives in Chicago where automation means jobs are scarce. At his mother’s funeral, he meets Julius Common, who wants his father to do marketing and publicity for NumberCorp. About the same time, Patrick’s banking app asks him to log in with his number and UN-ID, and to supply social media accounts. When he checks to see what’s behind the app, it’s NumberCorp, a six billion dollar financial tech company based in Silicon Valley. The UN-ID is a global blockchain-based ID system, and the number rates your social worth. Fascinated, Patrick takes the job instead of his dad, where he goes to work in the Communications department. They do battle with Facebook and win, go on to capture America. Patrick is transferred to a project in Sri Lanka, where he helps launch the number in South-East Asia, then Europe. Patrick becomes the company’s man as they launch campaigns to take India and China. The number will build a new world order, but is what they’re doing right?

This book isn’t exactly a page turner, but it’s well-written, inquiring and a little scary. It’s the flip side of Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope , but instead of the protagonist looking at the elitist rating system from the outside, Udo works for the company that’s building it. The plotting, world building and characterizations here are excellent, as the author outlines the people, events and campaigns that build the company into world dominance, and then shows its dark underbelly. Another item of interest: Although this is initially based in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have an America-centric feel. Instead, it’s very global. Commons is an immigrant, and much of the story takes place in Europe and Asia. It ends, as it began, with the UN.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much of an action line here. The story just cooks along at a leisurely pace as the characters interact and the company mounts various campaigns that finally prevail. What is probably the climax passes, and Yudhanjaya, maybe needing to fill out more length for the manuscript, adds articles at the end that Udo wrote about the founder Julius Commons. In the end, this just gives you something scary to think about.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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I think this novella is meant to be science fiction. According to the authors, Gladstone wrote Red and El-Mohtar wrote Blue. It was published by Saga in 2019, and runs 209 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Red and Blue are transhuman operatives in a time war, augmented with technology and able to change shape at will. Red works for the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia, and Blue works for the Garden, a consciousness embedded in all organic matter. The two scheme against each other and eventually begin to admire the other’s work. They start to leave messages for one another and eventually fall in love. However, there’s a risk in this, and eventually they become suspect. Can they engineer a scheme where they can be together?

On the positive side, this has evocative scenes and makes good use of poetic metaphor. There’s a symbolism in the opposition: technology versus nature. The time war seems to make use of butterfly-effect actions and weapons that echo down through the time threads and may or may not change the course of history, depending on whether the other side can analyze the effects and counter quickly enough. This was a pretty quick read, as the lack of significant events allowed for skimming. The solution to the problem is fairly clever.

On the not so positive side, this has very little in the way of either plot or world building. It’s an art piece: a series of nebulous, fantastical scenes unmoored in either time or space, interspersed with poetic letters that do little to clarify the situation. This means the characterizations are also poor. The whole thing is so vague that we can’t get a grip on either the two main protagonists or the flow of side characters that have no names and only a transient presence. Plus, I don’t see any reason for these operatives to fall in love. There’s very little content here, and the book comes off as mostly nonsense.

Two stars

Review of Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan

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This is a hard science fiction novella published by Tor.com on April 16, 2019. It runs 216 pages. Egan is an Australian mathematician and programmer who has won multiple awards, including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Hugo Award, and the Locus Award. This review contains spoilers.

Matt is the designer and operator of a self-sustaining aquaculture rig called the Mandjet. When the twin back hole Taraxippus passes the solar system, it pulls the Earth into a different orbit, increasing summer heat in the Southern hemisphere to life-threatening levels. Matt tries to get his family in Australia to join him on the rig, but they refuse. As the perihelion summer arrives, refugee populations migrate north and south, looking for livable temperatures. Matt finds Mandjet has become part of a flotilla aiming to settle in Antarctica. Meanwhile conditions are deteriorating in Australia. Can Matt rescue his family? Fight off pirates to get them to safety?

In case you’re wondering, Taraxippus is an ancient demon that frightens horses, and the black hole’s passing is a novel approach to climate change. The presentation here skips along in a shorthand version of what I’m sure could have been a lengthy novel. Egan spends some time on the black hole and how its passing might affect the solar system. He’s also clearly interested in the details of the aquaculture rig. After the climate change effects are clear, he turns to how this might affect his characters. People react in different ways, some clinging to their old concerns, with others realizing that life has changed forever. In classic hard SF methodology, Egan hits us with an emotional wallop at the end.

On the not so positive side, this was intellectually interesting, but didn’t quite click for me. There was a reasonable plot, but not much of an action line to develop it. The characters didn’t seem deep, and Egan seriously soft-pedals the kind of violence I’d expect from the sudden pressure on half the Earth’s population. There doesn’t seem to be much response from either local or world government to address the crisis—no intervention from the Northern hemisphere, for example, that would have come out of this disaster in reasonable condition, and nothing about the politics it should generate. Plus, this would have been way more enjoyable if Egan had scattered the kind of emotion we get at the end throughout the piece.

Three and a half stars.

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