Category Archives: science fiction

You Can’t Take the Con from Me: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

I am of the opinion that Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is perfect summer vacation reading. Even though those books are bloated by all kinds of Coke drinking, logistical chicanery, and wangst, the pages absolutely rip along, like finding a google hole of related self-important blog posts by a group of people who you kind of can’t stand, but also adore and want to have a drink with. I didn’t really track this while I was reading them, as I was too caught up rolling my eyes at the world mechanics – seriously, who is growing food or packing, shipping and delivering all the godamn stuff you assholes are ordering on the Internet - but Grant (possibly slyly) really captures the bullshit teapot tempest feel of the blogosphere. Only two privileged white kids who live with their parents can save us all! But, gosh, it was a lot of fun to read, and perfect for long summer evenings on the back porch. 

So I finished them up last summer, and in the last week of this summer, I discovered there are a bunch of enovellas set in the Newsflesh world. Sign me right up, gin and tonic in hand. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats feels a little like Hugo-bait (which I see worked, because this was nominated for the Hugo in the novella category for 2013). The Hugo is the more fannish of the sff awards, as it is decided by the participants in World Con, not SFWA or or other more trade-y organizations. Whether that sentence made any sense to you is probably a good indicator of whether this novella will work for you, as Browncoats is aimed pretty solidly at the nerd demographic. A novella about a zombie outbreak at a nerd con being voted on by nerd con participants is a good bet for the win. But hey, I’m a nerd and con goer, also for the win. 

But my nerdery aside, I think Browncoats minimized the things that bug me about the Newsflesh world: the tech-babble and less-than-punchy aphoristic intros and extros, the self-aggrandizement of douches, the shaky social architecture. The novella read much more like a lost chapter from World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, with the whingeing, bloggerly interjections of the After the End Times staff kept to a minimum, and the wide ranging events of the Comic Con outbreak related though multiple perspectives and points of view. My favorite of the End Times staff, Mahir, has gone to interview the last known survivor of Comic Con 2014 thirty years later, and the proceedings have that same Studs Terkel retrospective sensibility which both dampens the immediate arm-wheeling and tinges everything with sadness – two things the Newsflesh world could use more of, imao. 

Con kid Lorelei goes off to sulk in her hotel while her parents set up the Firefly fan booth. A young woman is rescued by a Jedi when a zombie panel attacks. A blind woman and her dog get stuck in the booth. A starlet for a time-travel cop show – “My TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my boobs and how they fit into my suit” – is abandoned by her handler with newlywed fans. There’s a lot of geek hat-tips to Who or the “fake geek girl” thing or – obviously – the Whedonverse, while pulling off a pretty good outbreak in a locked room scenario. 

Per usual with Newsflesh, I have some serious questions about Kellis-Amberlee, the disease that causes the zombiism, and why the zombies seem to hold off for a period other than narrative convenience and if they’re actually dead and stuff, but that’s not really no nevermind. One of the things I like about Grant’s novels is that the zombies are actually called zombies, not some coy new term. That a convention center full of geeks would leap to the term and start trying to hash out the “rules” for the outbreak based on fiction, even if they get it wrong, felt refreshing. Too often characters in fiction seem never to have heard of zombies, despite the zombie’s half-century of existence in its modern mobbing guise. 

So, my read of this was a perfect storm of situation and personality, aimed solidly at my demographic, fixing some broken things for me, and, ah, the drone of cicadas. It’s probably also the only of the novellas I’ve read so far that I might even recommend to people who haven’t read the trilogy, because as an episodic back story piece, you don’t really have to get into the whole thing. Fed is an alternate ending on Feed, and as such, is a major spoiler, and How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea occurs after the Newsflesh events, and is stupid. I haven’t read Countdown, but I will, Oscar, I will. It’s like 90 degrees and the first day of school, and for sure I can get it in before the leaves turn and the first homework is assigned. Allons-y! Rise up while you can!

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

I went to look up reviews for this, and I am nervous about writing a review because so many of them say they have to wait to write a review? I checked into Netgalley, where I got this ARC, and there don’t seem to be restrictions? I guess I’ll just hang onto my thoughts, so I don’t end up on a blacklist somewhere for spilling beans too early. Spoiler alert: this is a really good young adult science fiction novel, which has shades of Shards of Honor and Solaris, but more claustrophobic than the first, and less airless than the latter. These Broken Stars is a ripping teen survivalist narrative that probably could have more exploration of the final philosophical conflict – the part that really had me sitting up – but still just a joyfully fun read with interesting, likable characters. 

In space.

 the universe is fucking rad

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

There’s an episode in Little House on the Prairie - the book, not the tv show. Jeez, people, I’m writing here on bookface after all – where Laura finds a book of Tennyson’s poems in the house. She realizes that it’s to be gift from her folks to her, and shuts up the book and puts it away, but not before reading these tantalizing lines, from “The Lotus Eaters”:

“COURAGE!” he said, and pointed toward the land,
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”

She obsesses about this: what will they do? What manner of monster will they meet? Will they have the courage they need to face the island and its foes? 

She receives the book, in due course, and is horrified, shocked, by the culmination of the poem: they do drugs, and wander off in haze of beauty and iambic pentameter, shucking all their dreary work. It offends Laura’s Midwestern Protestant Work Ethic that this happens, and gives her an excuse to tell us to Not Do Drugs, kids. Apparently, the American war on drugs has been going on for a while longer than we thought. 

I thought of this after reading Solaris, because there’s something of the “Lotus Eaters” in this book. It starts out, in medias res, with our protagonist, Kelvin, on his bumpy descent to the outpost above the planet of Solaris. It’s very Joe Blaster science fiction: the rocky ride, the will-he-or-won’t-he dock properly, the opening scenes in the station itself, with mayhem and blood on the floor, the protagonist looking for some sort of futurist scifi gun, etc. And then, nothing. Or not nothing, but a lot of thinking and considering, musing in the emptiness of space about the nature of consciousness, of God and Man. It’s the 60s, Woman hasn’t been invented yet. 

Despite my Midwestern Protestant upbringing (because of?), I rather liked this. It’s nowhere near perfect: Kelvin periodically gets himself to the library for some seriously painful info-dumps. We spend several chapters learning about scholarship about the planet of Solaris, or its topography, or whatever. I was seriously tempted to skip this stuff, and skimmed like crazy, but I was bothered by the sense I may be quizzed on this later. I wasn’t, so skip it if you’ve never read it. 

The central conceit: the person who most embodies your shame, your guilt, will appear in bodily form in the station above Solaris. The person appears to be a manifestation of the strange, long-studied, planet-wide ocean entity on the surface. Kelvin’s is his long-dead wife, who killed herself after they had a nasty fight. She is unable to leave his side, and moves doors off of hinges to stay with him. She is indestructible, immortal; when she is killed, and who wouldn’t kill the person of his shame? she resurrects, horribly. We never learn about anyone else’s “visitor” but Kelvin’s, but they are there nonetheless, in bangs and murmurs, the sounds of murders and arguments, the glimpse of a hat on the vid-phone (I mentioned that this is 60s scifi, right?) This isn’t Terminator; they don’t wake to a terrible purpose and murder Kelvin and his fellow scientists. Kelvin and his fellow humans become increasingly isolated from one another: locked into the rooms of their own shame, reading quietly while a resurrected lover sits quietly in the half-light. 

What if our first contact with an alien race was so alien that we could never understand that contact, and the contact, for them, was at best a reflex of the nervous system? What if that alien was a child, a god-child, unknowing and unknowable? Lem plays with this, doesn’t let us know anything but the unknowing, the voyage within, the self and its mirrors in the claustrophobia of our humanness. How can you understand what you’re not? Sometimes, its transcendent, beautiful, and his language soars in the kind of poetry science fiction is attuned to. Kelvin is talking; his colleague, Snow responds: 

“’No’ I interrupted. ‘I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a…sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems of mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, which now measures his unending defeat.’

Snow hesitated…. ‘There was Manicheanism.’”

Don’t you love this? Isn’t it funny and sad, this essential lack of communication between one person and another? C’mon, Snow, Manicheanism? Were you even listening? Sadly, I think you were. How could we hope to contact the alien when we’re so thoroughly baffled by the familiar?

But, unfortunately, sometimes this kind of story is just boring, and I feel like Laura, on the prairie, frustrated by all this thinking and not doing. Lem is definitely being subversive, the way he begins by shouting “Courage!” and pointing to the shore, but the shore is a mirage, and you’re left in boat, in an ocean that may not be real either, dreaming of status reports and neutrinos, whose reality is transitory, at best.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I started and chucked several reviews to this book that either went on wild tangents – the kind I could never hope to come back from – or rolling into sounding a ton more negatively about this book than I actually feel. I think I’ve finally figured out what my problem is, and in order to get this across, I will now go on a tangent, one I hope I can come back from. 

I had a really great evening last night. One of my oldest friends invited over a collection of her female friends. Most of these women I had never met before, except for one, who apparently went to the same high school as I, but I only vaguely remember her. We all told stories, drank wine, and ate some of the most excellent cookies of my acquaintance. It wasn’t earth-shattering; we didn’t solve the world’s problems or say anything particularly meaningful – although I did get to have a freak-out about another girl from my high school who right now, as I type, is correcting people to pronounce my name wrong – it’s ker-ID-wen, you bitch, not CARE-id-wen, and quit telling people different – and I always like to complain about her. But the really enjoyable part of the evening, for me, was driving home and realizing that 15 years ago, such an event – going to someone’s house to gab with women I didn’t know – would have left me in shuddering terror. I’ve outgrown my adolescent social terror. This is not to say I won’t continue to be socially awkward, because I am and I will, or that I won’t also contemplate on my drive home all the stupid things I said, and rue them, because I did and shall.

This book is like this experience in two ways. First, it’s better experienced than re-told, like most good times. I focused more on the food than the conversation in my little anecdote, because it’s easier to talk about the concrete than it is on the more ephemeral qualities of good conversation and good people – how can I get across to you that a little mini-conversation about the problems of bread-making slipped into a little moment of reverie about Grandma Dory and her Swedish Limpa recipe, which, only for a second, transported me to the smell of her basement and the baskets of onions and potatoes on the shelf? But then the conversation moves, and I hear an anecdote about bakeries in LA, which is shared with other memories of the city for other women in the circle. There’s a lot of incidental in Shards of Honor - an alien planet with weird floating vampire jellyfish, the shape and texture of space ships, the politics of two worlds and two lives that are told anecdotally between two people. 

A lot happens in Shards of Honor, from running about on an alien planet, to mutinies on space ships, gun battles, politics, torture, crazy people, sane people. Just…stuff. Cool stuff. Space opera stuff. But the real thing I enjoyed, the thing I dug, was the relationship between Cordelia and Vorkosigan. I don’t feel like I can bear down on this too hard, whatever that means, because their growing understanding is something interstitial, unspoken, something that unfolds quietly at the edges of action. They’re grown-ups – which is how I think my bs anecdote relates in another way – they have gotten over the flailing self-involved panic of youth, but that doesn’t mean that they get everything right or stop worrying about all the stuff they don’t get right. 

There’s some off-notes to this book – it skips around too much, and maybe it has too many endings – although the last ending, the one that is an unrelated vignette of a salvage ship recovering the bodies vented into space during one of the space battles has a melancholy empathy I really grokked. But it was enjoyable, something I look forward to reading again, the kind of story that lends itself to re-reading not because it blows your mind, but because it is familiar in a way that belies all of the space opera and scifi accoutrement. Two people tell each other stories, and in that telling, they find understanding, and understanding is the house of love. 

The Days Grow Longer: The Age Of Wonder

I feel slightly apologetic about how much I loved reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, because it would be easy to sit down and enumerate all the things that are going to bother other people. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and do that right now. But I still adored this, despite its occasional weakness, because I closed this book and wafted around the cabin for at least half a day, completely filled with this bittersweet nostalgia and a strangely pleasant sense of doom. I keep telling people about it like an albatross. Which doesn’t really work as a metaphor, but whatever. 

The Age of Miracles reminds me very strongly of the films Melancholia and Another Earth, which are both nominally science fictional, but have trained their interest on the emotional upheavals of the protagonists much more than on whatever scientific bunkum was used to hand-wave the scenario. Here, the scenario that the earth’s rotation has begun slowing, somewhat rapidly at first – each day adding on hours, then even the slowing slowing. The story is told retrospectively from the point of view of Julia, who was eleven at the start of the slowing. 

According to the interview in the back of the book, the idea for this came from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami*, which was such a large geological event that it sped up the spin of earth by several microseconds and affected the tilt of the earth by a few centimeters. But, as the article I link to humanely observes, “The shortening of Earth’s day is no cause for consternation, particularly in light of the huge humanitarian crisis sparked by Sunday’s events. The death toll from the tsunami that lashed coasts across the Indian Ocean has now passed 100,000.” (The death toll would eventually rise to well over 230,000 people, with millions displaced.) The real story is not in wonky science facts, but in the lives affected the facts, which is why I don’t care about strict plausibility in why the slowing happened. If you’re the kind of reader who is bothered by the lack of scientific explanation in, say, The Road, then this isn’t the book for you. (Also, jeez, tin man.) 

The slowing isn’t devastating at first, more this tension of not knowing and disruption. There’s no looting and rioting – least not in Julia’s quiet suburb – more post-9/11-ish worry and can-hoarding and not going to work for a week until you decide that there’s nothing to be done, so you go back and live your life, even though everything is wrong and probably won’t be right again. Julia’s best friend – from a large, Mormon family, decamps to a settlement in Utah for some time, leaving Julia alone in the way only 11-year-old girls who have lost their best friends can be lonely. And when the bff comes back, she’s switched best friends and lets Julia know in the cruel way of the young that Julia was out. 

This never happened to me, but it did happen to my bff Christina, whom I picked up on the rebound from Annie. Annie had a new best friend every year, and while the friend-drop usually happened during summer break, in the fifth grade it happened inexplicably mid-year, and suddenly Annie was everywhere with Libby, freezing out Christina. I still remember Christina, in this weird bit of a shrug, identifying the fourth grade friend of Annie, the one she had replaced. She knew. God, that age is such a shitshow, and Walker captures it like fireflies in a jar, which you watch blinking in the darkness like wonder, and when you wake up, it’s just dead black bugs you shake out apologetically into the grass. Grass that’s dying, and then dead, and eventually you can’t remember the smell of grass because it’s extinct. 

And while I said there isn’t a real tight explanation for why the slowing is happening, the details of how people would react to the lengthening days and long nights felt true. People in the arctic go nuts during the white nights. My uncle worked for the National Health Service in Alaska – up in the crazy hard to get to parts – and his stories of the bleary, easy to upset children playing basketball in the bright midnight, their parents given up on porches with longnecks, would not be out of place. The authorities decide to put everyone on “clock time” – living according to a 24 hour clock, despite the sun or lack – because “real time” while Romantic, just keeps stretching and stretching into madness. But it’s all madness: the clocks, the sun, the dark, the slow, beautiful, horrible end of it all that doesn’t really end but just drips slowly. 

I bought a bunch of canned goods and water after I got screwed recently with a four day power outage after a storm downed trees and snapped lines all over the metro – which sucked, thank you – and I can see the water already evaporating, the expiration dates on the can ticking toward botulism. “That was the last day I tasted pineapple,” says Julia, the last day of whales, confused by the changing magnetosphere, beached and dying, the last day of birds. My husband and I have the “bigger problems” caveat when we talk about end of the world scenarios – who gives about the Internet or kissing boys or your parents slow, ugly implosion or whatnot when cannibal corpses are hungering for your flesh – but really, this is all smaller problems in the way that makes me think that smaller problems are only and ever the kind of problems to focus on. The water is going to evaporate. The bigger problems are so big as to be untouchable. 

I don’t know. Or, I guess I do know that The Age of Miracles will be dismissed as young adult literature for girls by some. As a woman who was once a girl who occasionally reads young adult literature, I can say this isn’t really aimed at teens: it’s too slow, too sorrowful, too retrospective. The Julia in the unknown future who is recounting this time period is a ghost, a mirage, and her reticence to explicate the details of her future existence shines the story into a welter of its own mirage, an oasis of all of the last things which are also first things. The first last things until the bigger problems came home, the time when everything slowed like lost summers. 

This isn’t going to work for a lot of people, I know, and that makes me a little sad. Sad not because I wish everyone could be like me, or have my childhood or my occasional despair which would make this work for them, but because my heart is somewhere in this mess, beating slowly in its real time, which is Romantic and untimely unworkable, but it’s the only heart I’ve got. Look here: my heart. Its days grow longer. But the days grow short here at the end of summer, the sky gone purple before it’s time to put the kids to bed. My daughter is asleep on the couch, and I will carry her to her childhood dreams. Amen. 

*Also, Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds was based on some of particulars of Indian Ocean Tsunami – I hate to say “inspired by” because that’s a gross way to put it – just as a random fact.

Vader’s Little Princess by Jeffrey Brown

This is going to be one of those reviews where I tell cutesy anecdotes about my kids. Fair warning. You can get off this merry-go-round at any point. 

So, my son has been pissed at me since Christmas, when I bought a copy of Darth Vader and Son for my brother-in-law, had it knocking around the house for a week, during which time I had to keep making sure the boy didn’t make off with it like he had with other Jeffrey Brown titles, and then mailed it off. I want that book so bad, he would say to me. You have to get me a copy right now. I’ve been doing the parental yeah, yeah for, like, eight months. I’ll get it from the library for you, and also, get your feet off the couch, now. 

So finally, after I kenned on the fact that there was a sequel, I sucked it up and ordered both. Both kids are ridiculous about Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations, constantly holding up the book and reading out the “dialogue”: pat pat pat pat Misty! Both arrived today before they came home from day camp, and I tossed them at the boy when he’d ensconced himself on the couch to watch some fact or fiction show on tv. His little freckled face lit up. You’re welcome, I said, and pointed at him, like you do. 

darth vader pointing at leia

Sure, Vader’s Little Princess is more of the same, and sure, maybe it looks like a cash-in, but Jeffrey Brown totally rules in the strangling nostalgia observational heart-based Gen Xer exasperated parent and child thing, and god bless him for it every minute of bedtime. It makes me a little bleary to have both kids hassle me trying to read out these books as I shove toothbrushes at them and order them to bed. I love that the girl has a Jeffrey Brown book too. They are both asleep with these titles at the moment, and that is a parenting win all around. 

leia having a tea party with stuffed ewoks

tao

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

I don’t feel great about this, but I’m going to abandon The Lives of Tao at the halfway mark. I don’t think it’s bad; I just think it’s not for me. The set-up is fun: it’s a man who knew too little slash buddy cop scenario involving the origin myth for Scientology. Millions of years ago, aliens called Xenu the Quasing crash landed on earth. Being sort of nebulous light-blob beings, they can only exist in the bodies of Earth creatures, kind of like the aliens from The Host. Unlike The Host, there isn’t a love triangle…no wait, just kidding, there totally is. It doesn’t involve the alien though, so phew. The Quasing been busy little alien beavers interfering in the cultural evolution of the human race, and have since split into white hat and black hat factions at war over some philosophical differences that I honestly didn’t track. 

Which is where we are when the novel starts bangingly with a jaded, hunky secret agent dude, who has a white hat alien symbiote called Tao inside him, gets into a big freaking shoot-out and chase scene with the black hats. Hunky agent is killed, and Tao must find another host, and fast. He ends up inside Roen Tan, a chubby IT drone with no real ambition. I was rubbing my hands here, because I can totally dig the whole arguing in your head angle of the symbiote relationship – like in Deep Space Nine when Dax ends up in a symbiote unprepared for such a thing. (It can also be dumb, like the Big Bad from Buffy’s season 5. I get that Glory wasn’t exactly a symbiote, but it’s in the ballpark, and it was mostly used as a goof when Glory’s host dude wakes up in a red dress. Waa waa waa waaaaaa.) 

But it takes six chapters to get Roen and Tao talking, during which I was watching my nails dry for the most part. They have pretty funny conversations, when they have them, and I enjoyed that. But it turns into Roen leveling up, complaining about wanting to eat pizza, and waaaay more confusing backstory than I’m interested in. I’m going to admit right here that I can be a really lazy reader, in that I will ignore complicated mythoses…mythos’s…what is the plural of mythos?…in books, assuming I’ll either get it when I have to, or not get it at all and just enjoy some ass-kicking. There was precious little ass-kicking to divert me from the nail-drying and mythology. 

I get the sense that The Lives of Tao is supposed to be comedy-action – comaction? worst portmanteau ever - but it was light on both, for me anyway. Again, I think a lot of this is me, in that a tech geek getting set up into a love triangle with two hotties doesn’t really ping my reader insert buttons. Also, I just read Dial H, Vol. 1: Into You, which also had an unambitious slob finding miraculous powers, but I felt like that owned some things about slobs and their wish-fulfillment that this didn’t? I may just have slob fatigue. I mean, I am a slob, don’t get me wrong, I just couldn’t find an entrance point here that I felt. It was too long cutting to the chase for me.

But, I did dig Tao’s (somewhat sloppily relayed) musings about Great Men in history, especially because he hits a lot of historical figures that I rarely see in SFFnal stuff. Everyone goes for the Greeks or the Romans, or possibly Persians if they’re feeling expansive, but here Tao hits Genghis Khan pretty hard, and some other foundational figures of various martial arts that I don’t know the names of right now, sorry. (Did I mention I’ve been drinking on this fine evening? Gosh, it is so beautiful out right now. I wish summer would last forever.) Also, and this is not related to the book in any way, but did you know Genghis Khan is a common ancestor for one out of 200 men? Whoa. I could do without some of the historiography, which felt sophomoric and silly, but whatevs. That’s not uncommon to have SFFnal views of history bug me – it can’t be as simple as whether “conflict breeds innovation” because seriously. 

And this is totally my problem, and I don’t expect anyone else to have this problem, but the names didn’t work for me. I get that there are a limited number of phonemes that can be arranged into a limited number of word-sounds that don’t already have meaning, but every.single.time I read the word Quasing, my brain turned it into quisling. And I didn’t read far enough along to get to where this might be thing, but Tao – in that exact spelling – has a meaning already. If it is a thing in the book, where Tao explains that he was inside Lao Tzu, I would freak the fuck right out. Alien symbiote fight-show is awesome, but it has zero to do with Taoism, and any shoehorn job making them relate would displease me. Again, problem with the DNF review is that I didn’t finish, so this might not be an issue. I’m just worried enough to stop before I freak out. 

So, this is one of those unfortunate things where I might have dug this book at another time, or been in more of a mood for it, or a different kind of reader, or something. It’s got back porch read all over it for me, but alas, not this time.


I received my copy from Angry Robot and Netgalley. 

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.