Category Archives: space opera

nebula

My Nebula Predictions (2014)

I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.

I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010′s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.)  Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.

I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.

Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.

The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.

There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary JusticeFire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.

When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light – but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.

I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)

Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.

I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.

I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.

I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.

Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.

So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.

Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.

 

Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.

 

 

star thief

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey is a hugely silly and energetic romp around a space opera playset of no particular note, and, as such, was utterly charming to me. Just about every single trope of the genre is deployed with extreme prejudice – the MacGuffin (actually, several), technobabble tech, mercenaries (with or without hearts of gold), tough but caring sergeants, mad scientists, bad childhoods, indistinguishable same-language speaking planets, aliens, empaths, slums, the Fate of the Universe, etc etc. The plot is pure Scooby Doo, with Bad Guys and Red Herrings playing a game of idiot poker with the reader; I can see the cards you have, friend. But it starts fast and does not ever slow down to whinge about, like, politics or needless exposition or, god help us all, philosophy, which I actually count as a good thing. There’s a lot of cut-rate philosophizin’ going on in space opera, and reading one that wasn’t fussed about that jibber-jabber felt like a breath of fresh air. Just set the reactor to explode and haul ass.

Renna Carrizal is a 23 year old master thief who’s pulled off the most famous heist in the ‘verse (of course). She’s on one last job which will give her the money she needs to retire (of course) when it all goes wrong. She’s to pick up some technonanablasterthing, and (of course) is sidetracked in the rescue of a young boy she finds locked in a cage (of course). She has no particular maternal feelings (of course), but this kid is Different Somehow. Of course. From then on it’s all bew bew as she’s more or less blackmailed by some kind of military slash secret government outfit (?) to go get this one thing and bew bew bew. Also, there’s a Captain Tightpants with whom she has a history. Hubba hubba.

Frankly, there are a lot of things that don’t make a lick of sense about the plot. The somewhat snort-worthy named MYTH is an organization which is somehow both a Star Fleet-ish governmental agency and a secret organization with terrorist-style cells who don’t know one another because…? How does that work, exactly? Generally terrorist-style cells are used by terrorists, and all the military boy-scouting and honor of the soldiers just felt weird and wrong. People who are supposedly hardened mercs are a lot more gormless and guileless than I would expect. But whatever. The prose is just gleefully patchwork, tossing in all manner of hat-tips and allusions to other space operas, from the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to BSG’s frakking. It’s not particularly well synthesized, but then it’s also hilarious and awesome.

It is my understanding that The Star Thief is an indie title, and it shows. I didn’t notice any copy editing errors, but it did have some rough edges on it that a story editor would have ground off. Lines such as, “The entire word had shifted, like she was fucking Alice in Wonderland…” seriously cracked me up. If you want the f-bomb there to be read as an intensifier and not as a transitive verb, I humbly suggest rewriting the line as, “The entire world had shifted, like she was Alice in fucking Wonderland…” You’re welcome. There were some cut-and-pasty seeming conversations and thought processes, although some of this could be attributed to the conventions of the romance plot that’s wound through the proceedings. Boy, can romance heroines wheel-spin if you let them, though, admittedly, the spun wheels here weren’t lingered on too much. We’ve got explosions to walk away from, after all.

And while it may seem I’m praising this with faint damns, I’m really not. I’ve been hacking my way though the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey recently, and while that series is just brilliantly plotted and meticulous about its geo-slash-solar-system politics and world building, on some level it lacks the rough energy of something like The Star Thief. A better edited version of this book would not have the same slapdash charm. Jamie Grey was having just a helluva good time writing The Star Thief, working the kind of nerding that’s more interested in gameplay than rolling up the characters. No, this isn’t better than Leviathan Wakes, but on some level it’s more fun.

Which is not to say that the plot coupons and convenient Chekhovian guns couldn’t rankle in the wrong mood. The sheer tumble of the plot means that brutal, terrible things like watching the destruction of your home town are not given the emotional resonance they deserve, but then it’s not like this hasn’t been a thing in space opera since Vader vaporized Alderaan while Leia watched, and likely before. (I like Carrie Fisher’s quip from a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone that “[Leia] has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds—along with her hairdresser—so all she has is a cause.”) I also recognize that it is a dick move as a reviewer to praise a book for its lack of emotional depth, and then cut it for the very same reason. These are the cards I’ve been dealt.

Renna is nastier than Leia, more Cat Woman than Princess, not troubled too greatly about using her sexuality as a weapon or shanking assholes who deserve it. (You know, not that Renna is a better character or anything.) I could do without Renna’s casual girl-hating in the beginning, and the general non-importance of female characters other than Renna. Again, this is a general problem with space opera, which tends to fail the Bechdel test much harder (as a genre) than just about any other I can think of, short of werewolf books. At least the girl-hating seems to dissipate by the end; she has learned a valuable lesson about women in authority. Or something. Bew bew!

 

The_Destruction_of_Leviathan

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Original review January 2012

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz.

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! It’s cheering when books like Leviathan Wakes avoid this trap. The characters here are more types than actual people, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places.

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read.

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test - and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read.

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz!

 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.

Dune_Movie_Planets

Posts From Overshare Planet: Dune by Frank Herbert

When my grandfather died, he had a paperback of Dune sitting on his bedside table. Finding it there was like a revelation to me, like the sort of experience only Taoists and Catholic philosophers have a name. He was nearly 70 years older than me, a teetotaler, a hymn singer and dramatist in the Celtic vein, a schoolteacher, a ham. We didn’t have a lot in common, as you may might imagine, two generations removed and a gender divided. But I loved him, and he was gone, and here was this book that was intimate to my adolescence, a shared experience revealed. Ah. Damn.

I sat on the edge of his bed and paged through the book. On the front page, in his spidery hand, he wrote page numbers with notes. I checked the page numbers and correlated passages, and found that many of the sections he marked dealt with fathers and sons: Mu’ad Dib and the Letos, the Old Duke. This shook me, shakes me still. A man, a man in his nineties, on the edge of his own death, whose father is long, long dead, noting the expectation, education, and disappointment that characterizes the relationship between father and son. Ah, and damn, again.

My relationship with Dune began with the Lynch film. As a young teenager, I watched it many times at slumber parties and the like. (I can be forgiven; I was young, and who didn’t want to see Sting in rubber underpants in the late 80s? This is before he became embarrassing, smooth jazz Sting.) The movie was trippy and cool, even if it didn’t make a lot of sense, and eventually lead to me reading the book. I wolfed Dunedown, several times, and the following books.

Most science fiction occurs 10 years in the future, 25, 100. This all happens 10,000 years from now, in a future constrained by a past that is fully realized. At some point humanity develops AI. It goes badly, cylon-style. There is an event, a war called the Butlerian Jihad, that renders computers taboo. People are trained to become computers: the Mentats. Women start their own secret political guild, complete with a breeding program, much like you’ve always suspected they have: the Bene Gesserit. There is a drug/resource that makes instantaneous interstellar travel possible: the spice melange. Without the spice, travel between worlds becomes impossible, and commerce, communication, and the Empire end. The spice has mind-changing, anti-aging qualities, but like any drug is still addictive. The spice comes from one place, and one place only: Arrakis. Into this milieu, add a messianic figure: Paul Mu’ad Dib. He galvanizes a native, marginalized culture to reorder society, government and the environment through the control of a finite, indispensable resource.

Reading this time, again, using my grandfather’s paperback, I noticed different things. I’ve been hanging out in Herbert’s universe for so long that I forget that it doesn’t, you know, exist as a kind of history that he just channeled into novels. It had to start somewhere, and that somewhere is here. Stray thoughts: There’s a lot of world building to do, and while Herbert refrains from the most blatant info-dumps, the beginning is slow. Duncan Idaho, despite his almost constant presence in the later books, is almost a cameo role. Herbert has a tin ear for dialogue, sometimes. I’d forgotten/misplaced all the bull-fighting and its attendant metaphors. Grandpa may have noted the relationship between fathers and sons, but there’s a lot about mothers and sons that he didn’t note. Okay, that’s enough of that.

I’d always taken home the society-is-shaped-by-ecology message in Dune. It’s a good one, and one SFF writers would do well to remember more often. Herbert more or less proposes that harsh environments create cultures comprised entirely of bad motherfuckers. As an inevitable consequence of environmental constraint, a culture will develop the following attributes: ritualized violence without guilt, honor-bound individualism that translates to rigid adherence to a local clan-like leader and individual responsibility for collective failure. I personally think this theory may be bullshit, but it makes for a ripping story. (Go read Manny’s review about having the revelation, as an adult reader, that Herbert is using Arabic words, for crying out loud, and that he’s talking about the Middle East and nomadic, desert cultures. Fremen = Arabs, spice = oil, House Corrino = decadent West. Seriously, go read it.)

This is not the message Grandpa was taking home, insofar as I can divine his mind from a collection of page numbers and almost illegible notes. (I can barely read them now, and it makes me sad. There are many things you lose with the passage of time: the sharpness of grief, the presence of absence. You also lose the sense of an antique hand, I’ve found.) Each section of Dune starts with a quote from a mysterious source in a sort of long-form aphorism style: this is the future of the tale imposed on the events occurring in the “now” of the story. In later books, this gets painfully lame, but I think here it’s done pretty well. Here’s a few Grandpa noted:

p 41? “How do we approach the study of Mu’ad Dib’s father? …Still, one must ask, what is the son but an extension of the father?” (Why did he put a question mark on the page number? Damn again.)

p 102 “There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man – with human flesh.” Grandpa was raised in a steel town by a father who was a steelworker, and worked in the mills to get his education and get the fuck out out of the mills. Grandpa had no sons; this quote can only be about his own father.

p 172 “Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying, ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’” Judging by the notes, Grandpa never finished reading this book. This is the last one. The thing that blows my fucking mind is that this is the last thing he noted, before his life was chopped off and completed. (I have a tendency to drop f-bombs when I’m upset, and I’m sorry, gentle reader, just to pay homage to my Midwestern need to apologize for everything.) This was the end, or one of the ends, for him. Damn. Fuck.

This is where that difficult to describe emotion comes in. It kills me that he didn’t finish it, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about a book that has been near and dear to me for forever. I can see from the notes he took that he was reading an entirely different story, taking home an entirely different message. We were divided in life by age and gender, personality and distance. We were united by some things too: a tendency toward the maudlin, a love of Dylan Thomas and associated Welshiness, a chin. We read the same book. But, just because we both read the same book, doesn’t mean we read the same book. Reading Dune again, with his notes, is like reading his diary, conjuring his mind. A novel written by another man, with a collection of notes in the margins, gives me a strangely intimate picture of my Grandpa, even if it’s shimmery and insubstantial.

This is profoundly strange. Reading is profoundly strange. We sit, quiet and alone, and hear the words of other people in no ear, in the voice of the mind. Some books are comforting, something we return to again and again. I’ve read Dune a hundred times. A couple times, my husband and I have plowed through the series in tandem, making conversation out of the personal experience of reading. Each reading is a layer of experience, each experience of reading another layer. I love this book. It’s bound up in my life, and each reading causes me to remember the bonds that readers share with other readers, not the least of whom is my grandfather, in the last days of his life. I miss him. The book brings him back.

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. 

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

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. 

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