Category Archives: futures

Look, Fred, a Zombie Kangaroo: How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea

So, as I mentioned in my review of San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, I’ve been reading Newsflesh novellas as my big end of summer hurrah. While Browncoats corrected a lot of the things I don’t like about the Newsflesh world, being as it is an outbreak story unconnected to the events of the trilogy, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea hit every single thing I don’t like about Newsflesh, and then added a couple more, just for fun. This was a Scooby Doo episode, and not in a good way. 

The first thing I thought when I read the synopsis for How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea, a Newsflesh novella set in Australia was, are there going to be zombie kangaroos? Because lol, that’s pretty much what anyone thinks about when they think about Australia right, Scoob and gang? I’m on record as digging it when non-Americans write about America kinda broadly, because you can get some interesting parallax views that I would have never considered, being inside the boiling, melting pot myself, but this kind of adventure tourism based on the laziest of national stereotypes is much more suited to Saturday morning cartoons based on a talking Great Dane and his highass friends. I can’t even say anything about the Australian national character, but I’m going to call bullshit on Mahir’s mansplaining, the rabbit-proof fence, and the zombie kangaroo national preserve. Givez-moi un break, sheila. Here’s some hot Vegemite down your pants. 

Mahir Gowda, After the End Times blogger who was my favorite from the novels and tea-drinking Brit, goes to Australia to…something. Check out the zombie kangaroo preserve and hang out with some weirdos? Motivations are murky. He meets up with some new End Times bloggers, apparently hired after the events of the trilogy, who hew to the exhaustingly dumb character traits of blogging platforms in the zombie future. Blah, blah, Irwins are always on camera poking things with sticks, etc. Fictionals are dreamy and write poetry and Newsies something about truth and justice or whatnot. I have never ever bought the blogging trifecta outlined in the Newsflesh novels, and because it’s been a year since I’ve read them, so much of the world building stuff has slipped for me because it didn’t make any sense to begin with. At the time, I was willing to accept what I felt were dumb, impossible reactions (socially speaking) because I’d been boiling in them for hundreds of pages, but the river had sped on, and my foot went into something less to my liking and slipped. 

Apparently Australia has a much more loosey goosey attitude towards the six hundred billion blood tests necessary to fucking do anything ever in the rest of the anglophone world (which we’ve only really ever seen the UK and North America, so whatever about China, Africa, or the rest of you lot.) Mahir eye-bugs about having a picnic; there’s a lot of bush-piloting around and Coke-drinking; zombie wombats and some taxonomy about kangaroos. What really set my teeth was Mahir’s final speech to a group of semi-rioting outbackers about how they should totally cherish their kinda bullshit freedoms because the rest of us are so busy spooking at Muslim terrorists zombies that our lives are shit, but he wouldn’t want to live somewhere with zombats, because security. Also, please get me some tea because I’m British, you see. 

Just, ugh, this is so the kind of thing an American would write thinking they were being all thoughtful narrative about our paranoid security state – down to the polyamorous relationship that isn’t remarked on in any real way, but just kinda sits there as a thing. We just gutted the Voting Rights Act and DOMA, and one of those things is a shitshow, and the other is great, but I’m sick of zero sum games of rights and freedom and security. I’m sick of reductionist bullshit and other countries as allegory, because other countries are not our allegories. Look, Fred, zombie kangaroos! Bah. 

Well, phew, that was something of a rampage, and I feel like I need to pull out of my death spiral a little before I conclude. The thing that garnered this annoying, plot-arc-less story the extra star was a couple of brief asides about Georgia Mason as she is during the last novel. (I’m seriously trying to avoid spoilers here, and, fyi, there are spoilers all over this novella for Blackout, so if you haven’t read the series and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t start here.) Mahir got into the philosophy of the mind stuff that I thought was squandered in Blackout, even if the treatment was kinda cursory and topical. Two stars. Also, kinda fuck this book.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

I have a fractious relationship with Quirk Books. No, fractious isn’t the right word, is it? Because they don’t know I exist nor do they (or should they) care about my opinion? I was excited for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because the idea rules, but then it turned out soggy and under-heated. But then came the clones - Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic with a Blood-Sucking TwistThe Meowmorphosis - which mimeographed this idea into a purple-blue stew of end-cap bait, finally culminating, for me anyway, in the dire shit-show that was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. That book made my blood boil. 

Because, look, I don’t really mind end-cap bait, and I don’t mind the toilet reads that publishers put out to give my non-reading friends and family something to give me when my birthday rolls around. (“I know you like Jane Austen! I think you’ll love this!”) I’m not even being an asshole when I say I appreciate the thought. So when the illustrious and inimitable karen sent me William Shakespeare’s Star Wars out of the blue, I thought, uh oh, I’m going to have to make the choice between my desire to shittalk this book, and being a grateful and worthy human. Again! Why am I such a terrible person? etc.

But as it turns out, hey Mickey! She likes it! So, phew. There’s a dry conversation one can have about translations: which is better, a translator writing from the original language, or one writing to the target language. Is the translator’s mother tongue the original or the translated language? My own take is that it’s almost always better to write to the target language. I once read this biography of Rasputin that was obviously translated by a native Russian speaker, and while it was often hilarious, and I enjoyed the wobbly prose as a desultory Russian language student, you just can’t mix verb tenses like that in English, товарищ. 

I think there’s something of the translation problem in the mash-up, for the reader at least. P&P&Z was probably more aimed at the Austen nerds, because the zombie parts were really more about ninjas, and big swaths of the text were from Austen herself. So you rate it as an Austen nerd, not a zombie nerd – if you happen to be both, like me. (A straight up zombie nerd should probably just stay away.) As an Austen nerd, it was mostly just perplexing, like, what exactly are you saying about Charlotte? Also, you get that messing with the chronology messes with…oh Jesus, nevermind. I really liked the cover and study guide, so I guess thanks for that, Quirk Books. 

By the time Dawn of the Dreadfuls rolled around, that book managed to drop trou and dump on both Austen nerds and zombie nerds – remember, I’m both, so double dump for me – which turned the translation problem into a Zen koan of Not Giving a Fuck. If the translator in question doesn’t care about either language, that’s what you get. (And I’m going to throw in the disclaimer that if you’re neither kind of nerd – Austen nor zombie – then you’ll probably think whatever about all my shouting.) Point being, it is clear to me that Doescher is a Star Wars nerd – that’s the language he is translating to - which I think is a pretty good choice. I’m going to wince when he drops a Naboo reference because I spend a fair amount of energy pretending the prequels never happened, but then I’m also going to hand-clap about a sly reference to nerf herding, which, you know, wasn’t a thing until The Empire Strikes Back. Ahem. Shut up. 

So this isn’t really for Shakespeare nerds. (Do you people exist? I mean, I’m sure you exist, but are you reading slovenly populist Internet reviews?) I wrote this whole thing aping Shakespeare to start my review, but it turns out when I try to write that way, I end up sounding like a pirate. Avast, me hearties! God’s teeth! and all that. So, we’ll give Ian Doescher some props for pretty solid metered dialogue, plus he manages to pull off an occasional heroic couplet that made me smile. I did spend some time discovering this handy nit-picker I got as a booby prize for being an English major had somehow gotten into my hand, and then having to put it away. I’m like an unconscious nit-picker fast-draw, matey. All the short’ning o’ words wit’ apostr’phes to make fit the met’r makes me freak out. Just, ugh. Also, I kept thinking things like, “Other than maybe the chorus in Henry V, who is present at the beginning of every act, Shakespeare didn’t really use a chorus throughout the action like that. That’s really more a feature of Classic Greek playwrights.” But then I gave myself a wedgie. Language from, babies, even if it’s kinda dumb. It’s dumb with jokes about R2D2 monologuing about stuff as an aside, which is pretty freaking fantastic.

So thanks, karen. This rules. 

Starglass by Phoebe North

The Italian cover for Paradises Lost,
the generation ship novella by UKL

The whole concept of the generation ship flips me out. I’m not even that comfortable with the idea of being on a spaceship (or a submarine) not because of claustrophobia, but because is there air out there?? NO THERE IS NOT. I just spent nearly four days in a blackout that had me boiling water for baths and kiting power from the neighbors (who had power due to the inexplicable ways of the city grid), and I’m keenly aware of how tenuous our systems are, how it took thousands of technicians pulled from as far away as Colorado to get me back into hot water and an icebox. And with my power outage I won’t be screaming silently into space as my lungs freeze

While most stories occurring on generation ships don’t focus on the technological fragility of a ship ginned up and sent out for hundreds of years into the void, that trapped and helpless feeling is in everything. Here are a thousand people whose living space was chosen for them, irrevocably; there will be no technicians from Colorado when things go wrong. Power structures, of all kinds, must be managed and cared for by people whose lives are by needs insular and rigid. Everyone must do their part because the alternative is not chaos, but death. (Just as a sidebar, this argument gets made politically here on Spaceship America a lot, which is part of the reason that the extremity of the generation ship resonates for me so well. Just because all members of society must contribute what they can doesn’t mean injustice has to be a part of that contribution, etc.) 

Starglass starts, fittingly, with the letter of one of the first generation, the earth-born who left a doomed planet Earth, writing to her daughter about her lost planet and the unknown future. I kinda don’t get book trailers – or maybe it’s just the ones I’ve seen are a little dopey – but this book trailer captures the elegiac tone quite well. We then meet 12 year old Terra on the morning of her mother’s funeral, the very beginnings of the grief and fracture which will color all the events of the novel, the relationships and personalities. 

The heart of this novel is grief, and as such, it makes for a more musing and introspective young adult novel than I think is typical. We meet Terra again at 16, on the eve of her graduation, where the government of Asherah metes out the living assignments for the graduating class. Her home life has turned into a cold war punctuated by emotional violence, an emotionally distant and voluminously alcoholic father clinging to his concept of societal mitzvah in lieu of real parental connection. The dad kind of killed me, the way it seemed obvious to me that on some level he loved his daughter, but he was so badly broken that it came out in these awful, inexcusably cruel ways. That I can have sympathy for him and still hate him and the things he does to Terra speaks to subtle characterization, this horrible, sad, broken, dutiful man who has pasted himself back together using his most selfish instincts. 

As befits a coming of age novel in a locked room society – remember, there are no technicians from Colorado – much of the plot centers on Terra’s growing political sense as she adjusts to her new work life. (And her work placement is an almost clustercuss of mistakes and silences that flow out of her learned self-containment as a result of her mother’s death. Say it with me: the personal is the political.) The people of the starship Asherah are Jews of a post-apocalyptic diaspora, who are, in a way, looking forward to yet another diaspora when they reach the new chosen land of their target planet. That day is coming soon, and the tensions between various factions, who will lead, and who has the right to all comes to bear not just on Terra, but everyone around her in ways that are confusing and personal. 

I feel much more closed-mouth about books I review beforethey are published, so I will just gesture to my contentment about how Terra manages her romantic life. The society on Asherah is rigid in the ways it constructs family life – everyone will marry, and have two children, a girl and boy, when they are told to do so – and that this does not and cannot work for many is maybe only a surprise to the young, who have been locked into their own family failures, cut off by silence and fear that they are the only ones. Here on starship My House, I have a girl and a boy and a husband, and a series of conflicts that I live with without ever updating to facebook or disgorging to the uninitiated. We lock ourselves into our choices and habits, and some of those choices are beautiful, and some of them abrade, and we pick our ways between the two as best we can. 

Anyway, as a conclusion, I just want to note that, as much I loved the shit out of the careful, grieving tone of this story, the personality driven conflicts, and the slow understandings that unfold, as the first part in a duology, the ending might be abrupt for some readers. Really though, it is my firm belief that in young adult novels, the leap is as important as the landing, and Terra’s leap is a sight to behold. I’m more than interested in seeing where she lands, but I’ll hold her there, in the darkness, struggling towards the promised land. 

Full disclosure: I am friends with Phoebe North on Goodreads, and I received an ARC from the publisher, but no cookies were promised or exchanged for my review or opinion, which is decidedly my own.

Tankborn by Karen Sadler: A World More Interesting Than Its Plot

When my Grandma was a girl, she was told by a Catholic priest that Protestants had tails hidden under their clothes. Maybe they had cloven hooves too, or that might have been Jews, but either way, Protestants weren’t rightly human. I don’t think my Grandma ever went so far as to believe this, so I can’t tell some fun story about how she was surprised by my Protestant grandfather’s tail-free posterior when they married. Plus, obviously, she married my Protestant grandfather. (And Grandma was raised in Homestead, PA, which was very pluralistic, not a priest-run village in County Clare or whatever, just to note how easy it was to debunk such information, yet how such disinformation persisted within her Catholic community.) So when I went to roll my eyes when Kayla in Tankborn by Karen Sadler is told that if she, as a Genetically Engineered Non-human, touches a trueborn, her skin will bruise and bubble, I checked myself. Of course that is an incredibly stupid idea with zero basis in reality, but humans regularly believe such things. And while Homestead in the 1920s had a caste system like any other American city, it was no where near as rigidly enforced as the one in this novel. 

Kayla and Mishalla are GENs on the post-Earth planet Loka on the eves of their matriculation at the start of the novel, and the plot follows their assignments out of the GEN ghetto into the larger world. GENs are the bottom of the heap of a caste system, genetically engineered slaves who were introduced into society 75 years before when the lowborn – the children of the original indentured servants when the colony was being settled – revolted against continuing hereditary indenture (or what we like to call slavery.) The slaves revolted, so the highborn of Loka made a new class of slaves. The complex hierarchical social and economic system is very much the selling point of this novel, as this information I’ve parceled out in a couple of sentences is something I came to slowly, through (mostly) Kayla’s vantage point as she navigates her society. Loka is richly textured, with various competing homegrown religions and cultural norms, and Sandler doesn’t infodump or downtalk, assuming the reader can catch up to the barrage of new terminology and ideas. 

While I don’t think a dystopian society has to be entirely plausible to be effective - Divergent, for example, has a hugely stupid societal structure, but manages to resonate as a kind ofemotional experience of adolescence – it was enjoyable to see a fictional society that wasn’t just plausible, but grounded in (mostly not-junky) science fictional elements and attention to detail. Loka is pretty much the American colonies crossed with an Anglo-Indian caste system, but the culture itself isn’t leaning too hard on either of these places, culturally speaking, synthesizing them into something new and strange. This reminded me a little of God’s War - especially the weird indigenous life of the planet – but God’s Waris waaaay more hardcore in a number of ways. 

My reservations with Tankborn all stem from the plotting of this novel, which relies far too much on information withheld from the main characters (for no apparent reason) and stunning revelations that maybe only stun our protagonists. Kayla ends up in the employ of a cranky old Lokan scientist with seeekrets and a GEN-like tattoo on his check – gasp, why would any highborndo that – while Mishalla works at a crisis nursery for orphan lowborn children – but with seeekrets. Just about everything that happens appears to be engineered by the cranky old guy, down to the chance-looking meeting between Kayla and her eventual love interest (and his great-grandson) on the banks of the GEN ghetto river. And while he (and the seeekret organization you learn he belongs to) appear to be able to engineer the most frankly ridiculous coincidences, he chooses very convoluted and bizarre ways to parcel out information to Kayla and his great-grandson. While there are culturally cogent reasons for this not to happen, sorta, I frustrate with plots that could be solved with a simple phone call. 

The parallel love stories between the GEN girls and and their trueborn paramours was also not hugely successful. I’m not criticizing the dystopian love story – let us all remember that 1984in many ways hinges on the romance between Winston and Julia before we start snarling about YA dystopian romances and how girl readers are ruining fiction – it’s just that Kayla’s relationship seemed awful sudden, overcoming scads of cultural conditioning much more severe than someone telling Grandma Fran once that Protestants had horns. Mishalla’s whole plot line was much more truncated, and therefore that much more sudden. It would have been nice to see something other than a love relationship be the impetus for cultural revelations, is all, and the fact that there are two very similar trajectories for the GEN leads seems like a wasted opportunity. (Though, I will note I really liked the sequence where Mishalla spends an afternoon passing for trueborn, and the thrill, danger and disappointment that flows from that.) 

The book-ending revelations felt a little well, duh, though I do get that that they would be huge, game-changing ideas for the leads. It’s maybe tough to hide the football of the GENs origins to an SFFnal readership, and I appreciate that walking a tightrope between reader’s expectations and character’s more limited vantage is a thing. Some of the book-ending revelations also felt, as the saying goes, problematic. I’m not even kidding when I say the following information is a serious spoiler.

Turns out, both Kayla and Mishalla were lowborn children who were stolen while toddlers and implanted with the GEN technology to make them GENs. The science here starts to fall apart for me, because while we’re told the genetic stock for the GENs is degrading or something making child-theft a sensible solution, I don’t buy it. The evil scientist in me was like, you could totally buy eggs from lowborn women or just sneak them out of IVF clinics or something; they don’t need to resort to trafficking which is a huge logistical pain in the ass. There’s a whole ethical grey zone right now surrounding these technologies, not even getting into tanks gestating children and whatnot. That Kayla and Mishalla aren’t exactly GENs felt frustrating, because while the obvious take-home is that GENs are people too!, we’ve just imbued our GEN protagonists with a secret nobility – they are not actually tankborn, but trueborn. So should I continue to believe all the racist shit about GENs – it is explicitly stated that animal DNA is used in their creation – because our spunky heroines have not been tainted by that origin? Do the Protestants still have their tails? Obviously not, but, again, it just felt like a wasted opportunity, because one could be trueborn, and one tankborn, and then the point could have been much less ambiguous. People are people, etc.


So, all told, an interesting novel, one that in many ways avoids the occasionally sloppy societal construction of the contemporary young adult dystopia, but unfortunately fails to seize on the opportunities suggested by its carefully constructed society.  

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.

Strange Attractors by Charles Soule

My husband and I were talking recently about the aphorisms that people dish at you and then act like they’re revelatory or meaningful. The one that we heaped the most scorn on was, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.” O, rilly? Pretty much the opposite of any emotional state is the lack of an emotional state, from a certain observational angle, so you might as well say, “The opposite of hate is being in a coma” or, “The opposite of feeling itchy is being dead.” True enough, as far as it goes, but not helpful. I mean, I know that this proverb is mostly deployed in situations when love’s gone wrong, but it’s just so freaking dumb and unhelpful. The opposite of irritation is slumber! 

Anyway, somewhat wobbly point being, I had classed the saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, we can get an hurricane in another,” as one of those stupid aphorisms: something someone says to you when a tree flattens your garage or something. Oh those damn butterflies! Add in the fact that since Ray Bradbury‘s A Sound of Thunder, where time travelers squash a butterfly in the Jurassic, leading to Planet of the Apes-style changes in the hear-and-now, the whole butterfly thing has become something of a hoary old chestnut in sff. 

Marge from the Simpsons tells Lisa that it's raining again, as doughnuts fall from the sky
What happens when Homer squashed a butterfly. Donuts!

But, turns out, it’s an actual mathematical thing! From the wikis:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.


Oh look! Attractors! Maybe some of them will be strange.

So the story starts with grad student Heller Wilson bopping around New York, complaining about the soulless thesis topic he was given by his adviser, and just generally having the pre-graduate crisis. The art is sepia realism with bright punctuations of color, and the scientific-y drawings are wonderful, crossing a sort of biological feel with more airless, computer-generated structures. The image I found of one of these complexity maps has decided not to work, so you’ll have to take my word for it, sadly. I’m just saying I liked the art. 

In order to kick-start his thesis, he goes to meet the old math department crank, Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who is a cross between a hobo and Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, but less sexy than the latter. Brownfield’s been working on something called “complexity theory” for the last 30 years – a mix of Asimov’s psychohistory and the Butterfly Effect – and believes himself to be the guardian of New York. He’s forever doing these inexplicable “adjustments” – things like setting a rat loose in a restaurant or subtly driving people towards a different subway entrance – which he believes keeps New York’s “immune system” robust. 

Which is my segue to talk about New York. First and foremost, Strange Attractorsis a love letter to the cityest of American cities, a place with infrastructure so unbelievably barnacled, complex, and jury-rigged that it’s astonishing that it works at all, let alone that it weathers the shocks of terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and various NY mayors. One of the many facts that blew my mind in The World Without Us was that, without the pumps working every minute of every day, the subway system would revert to the underground rivers that every inch of the underground strains to become. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent destruction were just a hairsbreadth from knocking out these pumps and flooding the system. This could be repaired after months and months of work, but. Soule and Co do an excellent job of capturing the vibrancy, texture, and fragility of life in NY, as Heller gets more and more caught up in Dr. Brownfield’s crazy theories and such. 

The plot is pretty perfunctory. Heller thinks Dr. Brownfield is a loon, but a brilliant one; he gets more caught up in Brownfield’s ideas; Heller gets in trouble with The Powers That Be over Brownfield’s influence; Brownfield asks for more than Heller is willing to give, etc, etc. The crisis and resolution is a little dorkily cheerful, with a whole pay it forward vibe that makes me gag just a little. But! Just a little. I am not immune to feel-good stories about majestic, chaotic cities repairing themselves in the wake of disaster, or in the forefront of it. I <3 cities. They might even <3 me back. Awww. 

Also, way back in the day we had a bird named Boolean, and Dr. Brownfield has a dog with the same name. Nerd pet names represent!

I received my copy from NetGalley.com.

Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin by Sarah Bartsch

I swear by all that is holy that I’m going to figure out how to punch the Goodreads search engine right in the freaking neck. Twice. Hard.

Why, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, but uncaring bystanders are next on my list when my blood is up.)

Let me explain. 

It all started a couple years ago when my husband dragged me to Bubonicon so we could see his boyfriend and hang out with other nerds. Being a somewhat reticent girl – don’t let my shouting online fool you; I am naturally a homebody and an introvert – I was maybe not all that jazzed about this in the abstract. But it was pretty much like coming home, because nerds (or more importantly, bookish, writerly nerds) are my people. One of those people I met was Sarah, and she is absolutely one of my favorites. 

So, it was with some trepidation I picked up her novella, Unforeseen: Journey Through Rust and Ruin, because I know what a horrible bitch I am in reviews sometimes. And she knows that too, which makes this whole process a little awkward. Mostly I just don’t write reviews for friends’ books that I dislike – truth is beauty and all that, but we all gotta live on this globe, and friends are better than any critique. But – phew! – I honestly liked this. 

Miyako is a samurai-daughter in an alt-Japan, c. 1915. My Japanese history is a little furry, but it seems that the reforms instituted in the Meiji Restoration never happened, and samurai continued on into the run-up to the first world war, but spreading out to the gentry and merchant classes in a way your more daimyo types wouldn’t have particularly liked. Miyako is one of these: trained into a system of honor and warfare, but not exactly comfortable there because of her class and gender. This Japan, not unlike the real 1915 Japan, is isolated from Western technology, but worried about the war brewing. She is sent on a mission into one of the semi-magical portals managed by the military to scavenge technology from whatever she finds on the other side. 

She walks through the glowing door into a world of scorched air and bandits, a dome city and automata. Which, oorah. This is deeply fun stuff, the kind of play through harsh, alien environments by competent but still uncomfortable girls that turns my crank as a reader. Miyako blusters her way through an environment alien to her sensibility, managing to keep from goggling at cars and trains and showers, but just barely. I want to ride on one of those, she thinks, again, and again, about all the wonders that this more modern, but still alternate Japanese city provides. Which is why I love science fiction, when you get down to it: the barely held-down freak-out about all the very cool things we can imagine and then walk through, as readers. Miyako supplies wonder to even the terrible things in the harsh world she ends up in.

But here’s my problem: two alternate history Japans are a lot of alternate history Japans to manage in a novella. So I did some googling, and it turns out that Unforeseen is one of a number of shared world novel/las, which start with Gateway to Rust and Ruin. From the Empires of Steam and Rust website:

It is 1915, but not the one you know.

In Europe, the old empires stand on the brink of war, and war zeppelins darken the skies. In the East, China has spread its influence as far as the South American Coast, and may soon come into conflict with America, which has annexed Mexico, and is looking further south. But the plans of the great powers may all soon come to naught, for something new has come into the world.

On every continent, in every nation, holes have appeared, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, that seem to lead to another world. Some are no more than pin-pricks in reality. Some could swallow a battleship whole. Some seem to provide an instant conduit from place to place. A man entering one in Zurich might well come out another in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies an instant later. Others have no exit, and those who enter them are never seen again.

All are leaking.

Some emit strange gasses. Others birth weird animals and insects. Still others alter the environment around them in subtle, unsettling ways, and may eventually change the whole world.

Which, cool. I’m all in. I find the whole idea of shared world writing – where different authors bring their craft to a world with specific parameters – totally worthy. It’s such a friendly, personable way of writing fiction; a call and response between people who are often congenital introverts. But I would have really appreciated this introduction to the Steam & Rust world when I began reading Sarah’s story as some sort of preface or introduction. I am absolutely willing to sort all this stuff out on my own as a reader, and I did, but I admit my default is laziness.

So, you’re welcome, Steam & Rust readers. I went in and tried to make an Empires of Steam and Rust series on Goodreads, so you could see in in one place all of the shared world novel/las, but I ran into the absolute freaking shittiness of the Goodreads search function. Even though I was able to add three of the fictions, for some reasons Goodreads couldn’t cough up Revolution of Air and Rusteven though I can find the damn novella on a google search and it looks like Summers even did a godamn Goodreads giveaway. Double-you the actual fuck here? Why can’t Goodreads even see this novel? Rarrrrrrrrr, and then the throat punch.

Miyako makes her way through her adventure in her own alternate history with wit and some badass sword skills, learning the way the young often do that her world is more complex and crappy than she thought. Here’s my next criticism, and it’s the best one: I want more about her. Having established not one alt-Japan but two, and a set of characters and even a robot I admire, I would kill to see how this all plays out and what happens next. More, please, Sarah. <3

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist - with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete - had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

I once got in a huge argument with some friends when they uttered the following statement in my presence: “The post-Soviet economic system is a much purer form of capitalism than our own.” In addition to being vague to the point of meaninglessness, this idea, which I’ve heard several times in different contexts, is such a ridiculously American piece of twaddle, uttered in comfy American living rooms while outside government continues to function and basic services are rendered. Adam Smith’s sherry-snorting little capitalist would piss himself yellow when confronted by a New Russian when he came to shake down the widget factory for protection money. Before you jump down my throat, yes, I am aware that the US is a total kleptocracy, and that for many Americans, basic services don’t even exist. But what bridles me about this statement is the almost wistful idealism – in the classic sense of the term – that goes along with this statement: look at those lucky Russians living out the American dream of a total lack of government! Think of everything we could get done if we dismantled public education, a state-maintained infrastructure, and even the pretense of a impartial court system!

In 1991, I went on exchange to the Soviet Union, to Minsk in Belarus specifically. (Although, it was called Byelorussia in those days. I can see why the name change - Byelorus means White Russia, but spoken aloud by English speakers, this sounds like Yellow Russia.) I was 16 years old, and typically naïve, although not in a particularly precious or nasty way. We were exhorted by the exchange leaders and chaperones to be mindful of not becoming the dreaded ugly American. We all very earnestly took this to heart, but in some very real way, there was nothing to be done about what a complete mindfuck was coming our way. Turns out, the Soviets viewed history entirely differently than Americans. I mean, duh, of course they do, but it’s one thing to say this, and another thing to walk around in place entirely steeped in an alternate history. It’s like someone took all the regular labels, and, I don’t know, rendered them into Cyrillic or something. 

I’m being flip, but here’s an example: I know it may be hard to remember, but the Soviet Union and the US were both Allies in the War. When I say the War, I mean WWII, which the Russians would call the Great Patriotic War. The War sucked for the States, absolutely: rationing, tons of people dead, Japanese internment  etc, but this is a completely different kind of sucking than the Russians experienced: cities laid siege, the countrysides burned to ash, the lack of basic munitions for the soldiery. (And this is assuming the soldiery were even, in the strictest sense, soldiers. There were tons and tons of statues in Minsk – rightly so – to the partisans who fought the Nazis with absolutely no military training or back-up of any kind.) So when Russians speak with pride about their part in War, it’s a fundamentally different kind of pride than an American would understand. It’s personal in a way an American transported on government ships, outfitted with government weapons and generaled by American military leaders cannot begin to understand. Again, caveats all around about your Grandpa and how he got screwed this one time, or LeMay and what an idiot he was or whatever. My point stands: your Grandfather didn’t have a gun to both his front and back when he went to war. I’m not saying his service is less valorous or whatever; I’m saying it’s entirely different. If it weren’t for this experience, I might have been able to go along with the statement above, because I would have understood the word “capitalism”, with it’s embedded widgets and labor and markets and all that crap in a very specific way, and then thought I could export those ideas with their nomenclature intact. Wrong. No way. 

I have roughly seven thousand different anecdotes about how my mind was blown by this country that was filled with humans, flesh-and-blood recognizable humans, and how their sense of history, community, and individuality was entirely different from mine. Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in this Soviet Union, and I’m afraid a good deal of my pleasure with this novel is intensely personal. Which is not to say it isn’t good, because it really, really is. Frankly, I’m a little pissed off I had never heard of Adam Roberts before Mike’s review turned me on to this. Yellow Blue Tibiais a thoughtful exploration of the idea of alternate history, both in the literary and the cultural senses, in this po-mo meta way, but don’t let that dissuade you. It’s also maybe the first example of the Soviet Noir, in this incredibly funny way that zips the California flat-foot backwards, but don’t let that dissuade you either. 

I’ve started this review a couple of times, but each time I get into the swing of things, the freaking battery on my lappy fails, and I lose it all. I wised up at some point, and started saving regularly, but the whole thing has been so frustrating with lost passages and I feel so sick and irritated with trying to recreate them that I’ve decided to chuck it all and start over. It’s kind of perfect, in way – although this may be the sour grapes talking – because this book is partially about history and the ways it is perceived, the way those perceptions are enacted and enforced. For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction recently in the mode of alternate history, and then also stuff about the paranoid conspiracy. I’m beginning to think maybe history is a paranoid conspiracy. Seriously, don thine tin foil works of millinery and gather round for this one.

As I’m writing, I’m sitting on the back porch while firecrackers bang around me in the dark. It’s Forth of July weekend, and we Americans are reenacting our big F.U. to taxes and England and whatnot. Our country was founded on an oppositional basis: we are not a monarchy, we are not British, we are something other, and that other is not-you. The Brits kind of fell off as our bad-guy of choice, but we’ve always found another other, which probably reached it’s societal pinnacle of othering with the Cold War. And the reason our conflict with the Soviets was so freaking perfect was that at the very same time, they were writing themselves as not-us. (I guess when I say perfect, I mean horrible and infectiously engulfing, but you know what I mean.) 

Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in the Soviet Union in 1986, mostly, when the Soviet narrative was beginning to crack and fail, on a collective level. (Har har?) The same could be said about that time in the States: the Berlin Wall had fallen, Germany was nervously approaching reunification, and we were all kind of losing interest in the whole thing. Meh, it’s done. Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech was in ’83, but this was pretty much a punchline on the era – for cripe’s sakes man, clearly you have been reading too much science fiction! (Although, that little chestnut was dusted off after 9/11, as you may recall, just another piece of evidence of how un-charmingly Cold War Era our “security systems” still are/were.) Anyway, the protagonist, along with a number of other science fiction writers, was called by Stalin after the Great War to script the war-after-the-next-war. After the Soviets put down the Yanks, they would need a new enemy to fight, and that enemy, my friends, would be aliens.

They beaver away at it, script the entire invasion, until they are told to stop and never to speak of it again. Unlike an American in the same instance, this actually means something, so they don’t. I’ve always laughed my ass off at American conspiracies, because the idea of governmental competence on that level is a real knee-slapper. If there’s one thing a group of Americans can’t do, it’s shut the fuck up on an institutional level. A Stalin Era Soviet, however, knew the true murderous power of an effective government, at least when it came to shutting you the fuck up. So he shuts up, drinks roughly 8 million cubic shit-tons of vodka, dries out, and manages to make it to ’86 more or less intact. Then the real fit hits the shan. He’s contacted by another of the writers from the group, who pitches the idea that all their fictions are beginning to come true. 

There’s a lot of snicker-snack and some zippy plot-driven origami at this point, and I won’t go too far into it for fear of spoilers. But woo-ey, it’s fun, and more mindful of character than your usual high-concept exercise. There are parts that got a little to expository for me, especially near the end, but wow is that first several hundred pages worth reading when compared to the only partially lumpy infodump near the end. And even though I’m complaining a little bit, I still thought the ideasworked and they worked well, reconciling all kind of craziness into a neat pile of half-smoked Russian cigarettes. Roberts is the most fun sci-fi writer you’ve never heard of. Sci-fi nerds, get out and read this as soon as you are able.

Railsea and Earthsea

One of the reasons I didn’t get to Railseauntil now is that Moby Dickis all over this story, and obviously so. I haven’t ever read Moby Dick, and reading a book without having read the obvious intertexts can be a problem. For example, I know I read The Club Dumas but I was so at sea with all the Dumas-lore that almost none of it stuck. Apparently, seeing a bunch of Three Musketeers movies and having the gist of buddies fighting Cardinal Fang wasn’t enough for me to dig the intertextual story. (But I liked the movie! I know I am a philistine.) But I think Moby Dick, like Frankenstein, is a different situation, in the sense that both of those stories have achieved a level of saturation (at the very least in the States) that you can dig the nods and winks when they come up even if you haven’t read it. They’ve been ground down and seeded into our story-listening DNA. They are molecular at this point.

Hell, even last weekend I was watching The Wrath of Khan- I know; philistine – and Khan in his last scenes spits out the lines, “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” I thought to myself, that is from either Moby Dick or one of the Shakespeare revenge plays. And behold! It is from Moby Dick. (It is somewhat hilarious to consider that Kirk was the Big White Dick in that movie. Ba dump tss.) The crew of the Pequod comes up rather a lot on Trek, the show dealing as it does with explorers and frontiers and the occasional philosophical madness. Alfre Woodard calls Picard Ahab when he’s raging about the Borg in First Contact. He takes her point, and ruefully quotes some lines to her, after which she admits with some embarrassment that she’s never read it. Reference five, Alfre! It’s okay we’ve never read it. It’s in our bones. 

Not that the Moby Dick intertext turned out to be this super huge thing anyway, I say never having read it. Sham ap Soorap is an orphan child-on-the-cusp-of-manhood who is sent off with a moling train as a doctor’s assistant. He appears at the first blood-soaked and swaying on his feet, this powerful image of a bloody boy about to drop. But the story then reverses, chugging, letting you know the half-comfortable events that lead up to this half-uncomfortable image. Railsea is a train-world, where the ocean is stripped and tied with rails in snarls and parallels, all these tracks onto which to lay the story down. The earth of the railsea is a scary place, roiling with all manner of underground monsters: worms, moles, bugs, digger owls. (Like Un Lun Dun, Railsea includes line drawings done by Miéville himself. I toss my underpants on the stage.) It’s a place of reversals and islands and debris, and Sham picks his way through the mess on the ground and underground, and sky and upsky. It seems like a layered world, discrete, with its tracks and isolines, but while the tracks may run linear, the trains on them do not. Oh dear, this is the kind of thing that gets me very hot. 

Railsea has one of those chatty narrators that you sometimes find in young adult literature, like the narrator from The Hobbit but less so. I don’t mean a strong first person voice, like Avice from Embassytown, but a straight up capital-N narrator. My husband and I spent some time talking narrator when I sorted this out about Railsea, and I realized I pretty much only can stand these sort of narrators in young adult fictions. “Name me one chatty narrator in adult fiction,” I said to my man. “Tom Robbins,” he said. I groaned. I admit I loooooved Tom and his narrators before the age of about 25, but after that, no. It’s not even an issue of quality, or my becoming all wise or something, it’s just that all that aggressive meta-narrator stuff aimed at my fully formed personality makes me freak out. I see what you’re doing, so don’t tell me what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But stuff aimed at the unformed? That for some reason doesn’t bug me. I admit my biases are deeply unfair. 

Here’s the thing. I was rolling along in this story, very much enjoying all the usual Miéville touches and flourishes: the weirdness, the half-dashes at local beliefs, the scrubby, bloody rawness. (I admit, I do miss his profanity in this young adult world, but I can forego cussing for other good things.) Then I had the revelation. You guys, this is on some level a riff on A Wizard of Earthsea. How did I not see that before: earthsea, railsea? Omigod, and when Sham and company sail right off the end of the world, on that one impossible track that stretches over the great impossible void, I was breathing right into a bag. Le Guin’s archipelago is the geography of my heart, and while Miéville takes that geography and runs it to a slightly different locale…I’m still breathing into a bag here. My heart, it burns. 

Both of these stories – Railsea, Earthsea – hinge so strongly on their endings and their denouements that I don’t even feel like I can talk about it, even under cover of spoiler. You’d see the terminus of those tracks before you felt the rails, which is part of the point of the thing called story, head out of the window like a dog in the artificial wind. Adventure stories for the young chattily run us from one place to another, confronting impossible and possible monsters, meeting and losing people, learning the tracks of regret and lost opportunities, one’s life narrowing to a single impossible track over the great impossible void. The great thing is that there are seas, whole seas, earthseas beyond the void, and the tracks never run where you expect. Nothing does, even if you knew the shape of Ahab’s philosophy and metaphor-spearing expectations. A railsea does not mean, but be. And 

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

&

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The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A strange book, to be sure. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord wears its influences on its sleeves so much that it’s more patchwork quilt than whole cloth. Star Trek (lots of Star Trek), Ray Bradbury, possibly Bujold (though it could just be similar influences, but the central characters remind me very much of Aral & Cordelia), the Janes Austen and Eyre (and I know it is monumentally unfair to conflate a real writer with a fictional character just because they have the same first name, but still I do it), the obvious Voltaire (or possibly Candide), LeGuin’s anthropology that often quests for the humaneness in our humanity. This is not going to work for many readers, especially after giving the usual your mileage may vary disclaimer about the influences. But the quilted quality, for me anyway, worked pretty decently with the the overriding themes of the novel: hybridization (as Mike notes, and you should read his review), the intersection of the domestic with societal, and love, love, love, baby.

This is the second science fiction novel I’ve read in the last month that focused at least as much attention to their interpersonal and romantic upheavals as to the more traditionally science fictional elements, and I find I like this a good deal. (And, the science fictional stuff here – like aspects cribbed pretty hard from some of my least favorite things, like Star Trek’s The Chase - were the least interesting part of the story for me.) Space opera especially can be very dudes-in-smoking-jackets-avuncularly-solving-society-with-reason, and that this book takes that reasonable computation – here is how we will solve our problems with Science! - and then puts the rubber to the road is actually quietly subversive. Yes, that’s a very nice theory you’ve got there, but when you resolve that plan down to specific human beings, who tend not to run to spec, you’re gonna have some problems. And the problems are not with the people, but with the plan.

Speaking of Star Trek, the opening is very much what happens in the third act of the most recent Star Trek movie – so spoiler alert on that, if you haven’t seen it – where the entire planet of Vulcan is destroyed, leaving a smattering of Vulcans in exile traumatized by genocide and weighted with the monumental task of rebuilding/preserving an entire culture. (I suppose this also happens in Star Wars when Leia’s home world of Alderaan is vaporized – seriously, that is not a spoiler – but that’s treated so topically as to be callous. Hey, a boy’s quest to manhood is way more important.) Ms. Lord notes in her afterward that this idea for her was sparked by reading about the lingering effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more. Because of a quirk of timing and culture, women were killed disproportionately, leaving sometimes whole communities of family-less men. A culture without women, without children, is not one that going to survive. (The reverse is true, certainly, but that’s not what happened.) So this is where we are with the Sadiri as well, and Cygnus Beta is suddenly a pioneer settlement filled mostly with Sadiri men.

Because the Sadiri are pretty much Vulcans – cool, mannered, intellectual – they build a little plan to entice (functionally) mail-order brides from the pluralistic society of Cygnus Beta to act as the new mothers of Sadiri. Ambassador Spock is tasked with surveying outlying communities for quanta of Sadiri genes, and mid-level Cygean bureaucrat/scientist Grace Delarua is sent along with him and his team. This is a pretty terrible idea – the whole assessing ladies for their breeding/genetic potential – and Grace even knows it. But whatever, road trip! We’ll just sort this shit out on the way. There’s a lot of sly commentary on racial construction in the novel – how the ways people look define how others respond to them, how racial characteristics are constructed and enforced, etc. (I actually laughed when someone exclaims “But slavery is illegal!” when the dawning realization that they are dealing with a culture predicated on slavery hits the group.) Which makes the white-washing of the cover that much more discouraging; I don’t think there is one character in this novel described as having white skin, and certainly Grace (who that is?) does not. But this has been going on in sff covers for a long time, witness the very dark-skinned Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea who has been subjected to whitewashed covers and “color-blind casting” (snort, as if) for decades. I kind of can’t imagine Ms. Lord had anything to do with this cover decision, and boycotting her work is punching a bystander, so I don’t really know what the solution is here. Strongly worded email to the publisher? Vocal bitching? Heaving dramatically ironic sighs?

The story is told mostly in Grace’s voice, which, as I gestured to in my last paragraph, is pretty breezy and chatty, sometimes irritatingly so. Sometimes less than snappy banter goes on for too long, and there are occasional dips into preciousness. But I think part of it is deliberate. Grace has an encounter with someone (trying not to go spoiler here) which is a pretty brutal assault on her mental autonomy, and it took me several chapters to have the magnitude of the assault sink in, partially because Grace jumps up and dusts off. Well, are we getting back to work or what? She’s got the glossomania of the traumatized, running scads of cheerful commentary on everything but the injury (not unlike Rae from Sunshine.) Mr Spock is doing the same thing, in his way, retreating into logic and genetics as solutions to a problem that is cultural, and therefore infinitely more non-linear. (To put it super dorkily; jeez.) It’s only through a series of glancing conversations – ones not about their traumas at all – that I began to see the avoidance mechanisms at work. Very subtly done.

Anyway, I predict that there will be many reviews of this book that dismiss it as just a love story, but The Best of All Possible Worlds - very overtly in places – reads to me as that sly kind of women’s fiction that says occasionally dangerous things about how we construct our societies, very gently and chattily drawing out our idealized visions of how people work and resolving them down to individuals. The syllabus is not the moment of insight. That Ms. Lord pulls this off in the historically all-male fantasy playset of the space opera is charmingly subversive as well. So, as I said in my opening, an odd book, patchy in places, with the kind of narrator who can even set the teeth of those inclined to like her voice (and for those who aren’t, forget about it). This book puts the soap in space opera, and I enjoyed greatly what came out in the wash.

I received my copy from NetGalley.com