Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

I expected to like this book more than I did. It had spectacular worldbuilding–based on the principle that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but internally consistent. It also featured a deliciously villainous antagonist, a horrific and original dystopian government that nonetheless made sense, and a great character in the allegedly “mad” general, Shuos Jedao. The problem is, Shuos Jedao wasn’t the main character. Kel Cheris was. And Kel Cheris’s development was not, in my opinion, handled properly.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85While Cheris does grow and change over the course of the book, we don’t see her internal debates and longings as she does so. Everything is understated to a fault. Cheris is duty-bound and repressed, a character type I usually enjoy, but her point of view doesn’t get far into hidden depths.

That said, I did enjoy the book, even if a lot of it felt like set-up for the trilogy as a whole. There are great twists–pay attention to the inserted “intelligence reports”–and some set-piece scenes as Jedao manipulates Cheris into doing what he wants and as Cheris finds out more about Jedao’s past. I just wish Cheris were more compelling.

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We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

In my quest to remedy my ignorance of 20th century Russian literature, I tackled the grandfather of all dystopian novels, Zamyatin’s We. We tells a story similar to 1984 (unsurprisingly, since Orwell read and reviewed Zamyatin’s book), but where 1984 is concerned with how people break psychologically, We is more about how the main character has long since internalized the rules of his society and how a rebel (a genuine rebel, whereas in 1984 there’s the suspicion that all opponents of the regime are sockpuppets) changes his views.

Zamyatin joined the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia and was arrested several times. An engineer, he worked for the Imperial Russian Navy (apparently they didn’t mind his record) and traveled to the UK for his work. He missed the February Revolution due to being in the UK, but returned just in time for October. However, he grew disillusioned with his own party for their censorship, and decided to have We smuggled out for publication in the West.

We‘s dystopia is based on Communism, Taylorism/scientific management, and Christianity (it is remarked several times that the Christian churches were forerunners of the society in We, and the rebels are named after Mephistopheles). I also detected the influence of Plato–the secret police are known as the Guardians. The Big Brother character (or, I should say, prototype) is known as the Well-Doer or the Benefactor depending on the translation. Interestingly, Zamyatin’s protagonist, D-503, actually gets to meet this character face to face.

There’s also a space ship.

D- is an engineer building a space ship for the government, and writing a record of life in the United State (singular, not plural) to be transported to the aliens that the spaceship will presumably meet. But as he falls for the revolutionary I-330, his record becomes ever more exciting–and problematic for him. He believes in the ideology of the United State, and is confused by his attraction to a woman he knows is against it–and, as the book goes on, his own “criminal” actions.

There is a scene in which the revolutionaries attempt to hijack the spaceship, and generally the book is more exciting than the classic dystopian novels. There’s real hope that the state will be defeated, and the cracks are showing by the end, though the main character is lost forever to a forced operation that destroyed his imagination and made him a conformist again.

I have to agree with Orwell that the loose plotting is a flaw–the same effect could have been achieved in many fewer pages. I also felt the portrayal of O-, D-‘s initial lover, was misogynistic, though this may have just been because we’re seeing it through the eyes of D-, who is definitely sexist. I- is a very different sort of female character, so I’m willing to attribute some of the sexism to D-‘s narration.

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_This is the first Le Guin that I’ve read cover to cover– I tried The Left Hand of Darkness but couldn’t get into it. Here, however, I was hooked from page one.

The Dispossessed tells the story Shevek, a physicist from an anarchist planet, Anarres, and his journey to a wealthier “archist” planet as he seeks to expand the horizons of his self-limited society. But he soon discovers there were very good reasons why his ancestors left the rich world of Urras behind.

I found the anarchist world of Anarres more convincing and interesting than the capitalist society Shevek explores on Urras. Because the country he lives in on Urras is basically an exaggerated version of our own capitalist society (this was written in the seventies, the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and Kent State), it was simultaneously less new and exciting and harder to believe. At the really bad parts (when the government turns helicopter gunships on strikers), I could tell myself, “But we’d never do that!” rather than taking the whole society as it is presented. Anarres, on the other hand, was totally different from anything I’ve ever experienced, and absolutely fascinating. It’s not a perfect society; in fact it’s stagnating and becoming conformist. This just makes it more convincing. I did wonder why the rebels in Anarres always were pure anarchists trying to go back to the original ideology–we didn’t see anyone having a completely different ideology, only contrasting takes on the same ideas–but this made for a more complex exploration of anarchism in its different forms.

One small section that I thought was very well-observed was when the Anarresti children, having just learned that other societies have prisons, play at prisoners and guards and end up going too far. This section really got to the heart of power exchange games and dynamics, while also being convincing as the actions of children.

The interactions between men and women were very odd from my 21st century perspective. There was a lot of emphasis on sexual difference and the frisson this leads to, which perhaps as a bisexual, I cannot understand.

The physics, which works differently from our physics, was nonetheless both convincing and easy to follow. Shevek’s theories of simultaneity and sequency were mirrored in the nonlinear structure of the book, which alternates between Shevek’s past on Anarres and his present on Urras, each chapter following an internal sequence while happening, from the reader’s perspective, simultaneously with the other narrative.

The quotations within the book from the fictional anarchist leader Odo were beautifully written, though the prose of the rest of the book alternated between lovely and overly plain and direct. However, as I was reading another book at the same time which was very densely written, the directness was a bit of a relief. Anyway, I now want to read the short story focusing on Odo, “The Day Before the Revolution.”

The Swan Riders – Erin Bow

You may have noticed that I loved The Scorpion Rules. I loved this one too. It doesn’t come out till September, so you will have to wait to get your hands on it, or you could enter the Twitter contest run by the author to get an ARC.

My number one, somewhat idiosyncratic concern with the sequel was that Elián not be made a bad guy, though he often does things that run counter to how Greta does things and the flap copy hinted at violence on his part. Anyway, he remains a wonderful character and very brave, so I was happy. He and Talis even come to a sort of understanding, which is great.

This is very much Talis’s book, maybe even more so than the narrator Greta’s. Talis is the one who learns and grows, on whose choices the climax turns. Greta’s still great, dignified and selfless and clever, but she’s mainly dealing with the consequences of her choice to become AI in the previous book, rather than making new choices. Her big moments are more epiphanies than actions. Talis, on the other hand, is thrust into a brand-new, identity-altering situation, and learns a great deal as a result about what it means to be human, to be AI, and to love, until finally he has to make a choice.26409580

One thing that I think had improved from the previous book was the handling of race– where in the previous book many nonwhite secondary characters didn’t feel right, in this book, they’re more individual.

Some things I loved:
– Greta’s attempts to hang onto her memories and feelings as an AI, even though they risk destroying her. Talis can help her by taking away the memories’ emotional content, against her will if necessary, but as this goes on, Greta becomes less and less the person she was. “I have lost none of the data,” she repeatedly says, revealing how much she has truly lost.
– Sucking chest wound. Nope, not saying anything more about that.
– The scene where they pretend to torture Elián (and for real dislocate his shoulder). It was the right combination of funny, tense, and revealing of both character and plot.
– The complex motivations of the titular Swan Riders

I was a bit ambivalent about the very end, which I will do my best to discuss with minimal spoilers. Greta divests herself of unjust power, which is very, very important, but I’m not sure she has a plan for what comes next. And while it is morally incumbent on her to get rid of that power regardless, I would be happier if she made a plan for how to do so with the least bad consequences.

A side note: Greta is queer, but her girlfriend is off-stage (though a major motivating force) during this book. So don’t go in expecting more Greta/Xie. I think readers of the previous book will enjoy this one (I couldn’t put it down), but it’s important that they have the right expectations.

 

 

Sacrifice of Fools – Ian McDonald

This was my first Ian McDonald book, and I’m afraid to read any more because I don’t think they can top this one.

At the time it was written (1997) it was set in the future (2004) but now it’s a sort of AU/AltHist. What if aliens landed just as the Troubles in Northern Ireland were coming to an end, and a large number settled in that area? The political future McDonald projects is different from the one that came to pass (joint sovereignty rather than power-sharing, and on a more minor note, the PSNI are instead the much more mockable NIPS). So, obviously, is the arrival of aliens.

Andy Gillespie, former getaway driver for Loyalist paramilitary hits, gets out of jail thoroughly disillusioned with sectarian politics, and fluent, due to a series of traumatic circumstances, in the aliens’ language. He starts a new life as a mediator between aliens and humans, but due516rgjen4gl-_sx322_bo1204203200_ to his past, when an alien family he works with is murdered, he’s the prime suspect. So he sets out to find the real murderer, teaming up with an alien lawyer or “knight-advocate” who’s investigating a disappearance, and followed by Roisin Dunbar, a Catholic cop whose marriage is under strain.

Along the way he re-encounters a prison friend of his, who is trying to assimilate to the alien culture and become one of them. The process is compared to sex reassignment, and the book as a whole is in dialogue with the trans serial killer trope. The book has a lot to say about the dark side of assimiation– as the aliens encounter human culture, they pick up the link between sex and violence, a link previously foreign to their culture. By contrast, when Andy Gillespie plans to become a knight-advocate himself, it’s presented as positive that he’s not doing this to feel a sense of belonging in the alien culture.

The alien culture is well-developed and so was Gillespie’s character. I don’t read a lot of books by men or with male protagonists, so this was a nice change for me- a male hero and former “tough guy” whose emotional journey is depicted with nuance. The climax was incredibly intense and full of dread, but the denouement/final chapter was a bit confusing and abrupt.  Both Roisin and the alien lawyer’s threads are dropped without much resolution, which makes me disagree with how Jo Walton’s post presents them as equal protagonists with Andy Gillespie (who gets more resolution). I should say, however, that Jo Walton’s review inspired me to read this, and that it is every bit as good as she says it is. Read it.

The Cold Between – Elizabeth Bonesteel

pp98sulctikkxyeml1ap Elizabeth Bonesteel’s debut novel, The Cold Between, is blurbed by a RITA award winner and begins, after a prologue, with the main character, Elena, being picked up in a bar by the mysterious Trey Zajec (the picture to the left is from the excellent cover depiction of them). They’re soon having sex, in a lengthy scene that nonetheless reveals little about their characters. Is this sci-fi, romance, or both?

I can think of some excellent crossovers– Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor being an example– but I was worried this book might prove “too much romance, not enough roller derby,” to borrow a phrase. I needn’t have worried. While Bonesteel doesn’t have Bujold’s flair for characterization, relying too much on telling about each character from the point of view of the others rather than showing, she’s a much smoother prose stylist. And the plot soon picks up, with murders, wormholes, and mysterious explosions. I also enjoyed the heroine being an army mechanic, an unusual occupation which comes in handy at various points.

The setting is a Russian-influenced future space colony, and I was amused to see some characters’ last names taken directly from Russian politics, like Putin and Limonov. While the villains of the story were too obvious for my liking, both in terms of their identities and their motivations, they did have a few redeeming qualities and interesting povs. For example, one villain refuses to be part of the heroes’ plans to thwart a technology that could be world-ending…or life-saving. I really liked that the hypotenuse of the love triangle, Elena’s captain Greg, gets to be a strong and likable character despite Elena not being attracted to him.

Ultimately, the weakness of this story is in the tell-don’t-show characterization. Rather than letting us see their attraction in their actions, Bonesteel has Trey and Elena mentally praise each other– a tactic that didn’t work for me in Graveyard Sparrow, either. Nor is the character development subtle. One particularly obvious quote: “His heart warmed, and all of his insecurity washed away as if it had never been.”

However, there’s plenty of action and tension, all in a very readable style, and Bonesteel ties up the plot while leaving plenty for the sequel to explore. I’ll probably be reading the sequel, Remnants of Trust, when it comes out later this year.

And as to the genre question? I’m waiting for later books to resolve that. The Cold Between doesn’t have the Happily Ever After or Happy For Now ending required of genre romance, but we’ll see what happens as the series goes on.

 

 

The Scorpion Rules – Erin Bow

This book was like id-fic for me. So many elements from my dreams– and nightmares.

It’s an Omelas-type dystopia- a world where the good of the many depends on the suffering of the few. In this case, the few are the children of 25th century world leaders, who are kept hostage throughout their childhood (or as long as their parents are in power) to ensure that their parents don’t start wars. If their parents do, the children are killed. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, our narrator, believes in the system even though it keeps her as a hostage at risk of death. She has a strong sense of dignity, both as a person and in terms of her position as a “Child of Peace”.

Elian, a new arrival at the monastery-like residence of the hostages, has an entirely different idea of dignity. He’s defiant in the face of what he sees as an unjust system, comparing himself to Spartacus, and while the children’s robotic minders go to extreme lengths– even torture– to get him to comply, he continues to rebel until it becomes clear that he’s not the only one who’ll suffer if he keeps it up. In another author’s hands, Elian would be the love interest, but while they kiss a few times and grow close over the course of the novel, Greta’s major romantic relationship is with her (female) roommate, Xie.

Greta is slow to question the system, but she eventually sees the wrongness of her captors’ treatment of Elian– and then they turn on her, too. Ironically, it’s while she’s being tortured with the induced nightmares of “Dreamlock” that the residence is invaded by Elian’s people, who have figured out a way to declare war without sacrificing their hostage. The country they’ve declared war on is Greta’s, and they will stop at nothing to use her against her family.

Oh, did I mention that this whole hostage system is run by an AI?

Talis, the AI, is not happy with the hostage-taking of the hostages. He arrives to sort things out. The trouble is that his idea of sorting things out often involves killing people and destroying entire cities.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot, but hopefully that gives you an idea of how much you’d like this book. One of its great strengths (it’s written by an ex-physicist) is how well-thought out the AI’s and the technology are– and they become increasingly important as the plot goes on. I normally loathe stories where a person “uploads their mind,” because they fail to take into account that the lack of continuity between the consciousness in the body and the consciousness in the copy, but a few books do it well (Peter Dickinson’s Eva springs to mind). This book doesn’t address all my concerns, but it explores the concept in more interesting ways than most do.

I wish the geopolitics had that same depth– while the cast is diverse (Xie is Asian and Elian is Jewish and “racially indeterminate, like many Americans”), I didn’t feel that the future countries from which the hostages besides Greta and Elian, who are both North American, come were that plausible or textured.

Another weakness is that sometimes concepts are introduced out of nowhere when they become necessary, like “dreamlock,” which was introduced so abruptly that it didn’t feel like an organic part of the world.

However, the strengths more than outweigh the weaknesses. I stayed up till two to see what happened next in this tension-filled story. Erin Bow isn’t afraid to go dark, hard places (and I’m not talking about the violence, but about Greta’s choice at the end and its fallout). Furthermore, characters on all sides of the conflicts have depth and pride, have standards below which they will not sink, even if those standards are very different from person to person.

Greta is a great heroine. I love people who can see past their own self-interest, and while she’s not exactly right when she believes in the hostage system, she’s also noble. I loved her, and I hope she narrates the companion novel, due out next year, as well.

A nonspoilery standout moment in terms of emotion was Greta’s mother’s insistence that Greta not be painted in her monastic Child-of-Peace outfit, because she wants one picture of her not dressed as “Joan of bloody Arc!” And you know it’s because Greta might well die in her role as a Child of Peace, and her mother wants some reminder that’s not connected to the hostage system.

I am waiting on tenterhooks for the sequel. Next year can’t come fast enough.