Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published: Tor, 2015
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“At the technological height of human civilization, a great project was undertaken.  Planets were carefully terraformed and seeded with Earth-based life.  A virus was loosed on the animals, designed to aid in their rise to sentience, and humanity eagerly awaited contact with their newly-created sentient alien species.

Then, humanity fell.  The few surviving members of the species have left their poisoned, dying Earth behind and journeyed into the stars in a final, desperate voyage.  When they find a terraformed planet, it seems like a dream come true.  But that planet was never meant for them, and its new inhabitants--a civilization of massive sentient spiders--are far from the gentle uplifted monkeys their ancestors had hoped for.  The spiders’ planet also has a caretaker, the last remnants of a human mind wielding ancient, deadly technology.  Time will tell whether humanity will survive, or will ultimately be supplanted by its own creations.” ~Allie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and I chose it because it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I have a very strong revulsion to spiders, but somehow it did not destroy this book for me! It helped that the spiders’ civilization was so interesting.

My Thoughts:

Two stories make up the basis of the novel: the development of the spiders’ civilization, and a dying humanity’s final journey. The two sides made a satisfying balance, one story of birth and growth, and the other of decline and death.  The spiders’ story was told over many generations, linking each set of characters by common names and roles. I loved the creativity and careful thought that clearly went into imagining the spider culture.  Their artificial initial conditions were taken into account, and the impact was carefully woven into their growth in an organic way. There are many places where I could see a parallel to the development of human civilization, but the details of their world were often utterly different.  For example, their biology, methods of communication and resources sent their technological progressed in a completely different direction than ours. I may have a deep, irrational fear of spiders, but even I can admit that their world was fascinating.

The humans, on the other hand, were fleeing their dead and poisoned homeworld, so their side of the story was considerably more bleak and depressing.  It was also a little more familiar, as it incorporated a lot of common tropes of generation ship tales.  Their story took place within the lifetime of a single generation, but with many interludes of cold sleep.  The protagonist and a small group of human crew struggled to keep the ship working, to find a new world, and generally approached each setback with the knowledge that they were the last of their species.  I enjoyed their story, though the characters were not as memorable as some we meet in the generations of spiders.     

From the beginning, I did not think it would take long for the humans and spiders to begin interacting directly.  In the end, though, the two stories were kept largely separate for a large part of the novel. In retrospect, I think seeing them both separately helped to emphasize the validity of the needs and desires of each group.  Neither the spiders nor the humans were the ‘bad guys’. Conflict between them arose from finite resources, lack of ability to communicate, and naturally ingrained instincts--not from moral considerations. I also appreciated how believably the novel demonstrates the human tendency to violence in the face of otherness. The massive spiders are just familiar enough to humans to evoke a visceral panic response.  I was surprised by how the story eventually concluded, but it was a good surprise.  I can't think of a better way to have wrapped up this excellent novel.  

My Rating: 5/5

Children of Time tells two stories, one about the beginning of a species and one about the potential end.  I loved reading about the development of the sentient spiders’ creative and alien culture over many generations, even though spiders creep me out.  The human side was more standard, with the remainder of the human race facing a long space journey with an uncertain end.  I enjoyed both stories, though the spiders’ civilization was definitely the most impressive aspect of the book.  Overall, I found the book the be very entertaining, and the ending was surprising and satisfying.  I’m curious to see if Tchaikovsky plans to write more science fiction novels!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Read-Along: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey, Part 2

Welcome to week two of the read-along of James S.A. Corey’s Cibola Burn!  This week’s reading covers chapters 13-27, and the discussion questions are provided by The Illustrated Page. Beware of spoilers through that point from here on out!

1. How do you feel about Naomi being taken captive?

Well, she has kind of been ‘damselled’, hasn’t she? It does make sense with the plot, and I’m glad that the Rocinante’s plans are meeting with as many setbacks as everyone else’s.  But now Naomi, the only woman of the Rocinante crew, is confined to a small cell to await rescue.  I have hope that she’s going to turn Havelock against Murtry, and convince him to use his ‘extremely free hand’ to de-escalate the situation instead of whatever it is Murtry is trying to do.   

2. What are your thoughts on our new POV characters: Basia, Elvi, and Havelock?

I feel like we do not have any new heroic characters in this book at all.  Holden and Miller were both driven by their convictions, and Bobbie and Chrisjen were powerful in their own ways.  Anna, Clarissa, Prax, and Bull were all risk-takers, or able to be driven to it by their principles. On the other hand, Basia, Elvi, and Havelock are all pretty ordinary, and they are not currently rising to the occasion.

I like Elvi, but she is kind of naive and emotional.  I’d like to hear more about the weird stuff happening on the planet, and less about her frustration or her crush on Holden.  Also, is it not odd that the scientists don’t seem to have regular meetings to discuss their findings?  As a scientist myself, I couldn’t imagine being in an environment like this without daily group meetings to discuss new discoveries.

I like that Alex is forcing Basia to take ownership of his mistakes, because he was starting to slide into self-pity there.  I don’t yet see how he can have much of an impact on this situation, and he is a terrible judge of character.  At the same time, I think he may be a little pessimistic about his chances with the justice system.  He didn’t actually murder anyone, and his crimes are likely to look pretty minor next to Murtry’s.

Havelock hasn’t really done much of anything so far, aside from just following Murtry’s lead.  I’m guessing he might be here as a link to Miller, and as someone to turn on Murtry at a crucial moment.  I’m glad he chose to call out anti-belter sentiment directly, but his problems seem kind of small compared with a melting moon, murderous security and possibly an entire hidden biosphere of protomolecule.

3. So, do you think we're going to encounter aliens? The thing that destroyed civilizations? Is there something larger going on than the conflict between the colonists and the corporation?

At this point, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to meet sentient aliens, at least.  The fact that the protomolecule flinched away from some area of this planet makes me think we might meet the civilization-killer.  I think the background story, Miller’s search for what happened to the gate civilization, is going to come to foreground.  And if previous books are any indication, a lot of the people on the planet are going to die.  

4. Speaking of the conflict, what actions do you think Holden can take to resolve it?

I’m not sure he can do anything against something that destroyed the gate civilization.  Concerning Murtry and the colonists, his hands are pretty tied as well.  If Murtry were taken out of the picture, in some legitimate and non-violent way, then maybe that would help to defuse the tension.  The colonists’ resistance is stamped out at this point, so the only violent problem remaining is Murtry.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Short Fiction: May 2017

It’s time for another round of short fiction favorites, this time from the batch of stories published in May 2017!  This month, there’s a story by Hugo award winner John Chu, as well as two authors I had not featured before, Caroline M. Yoachim and Tony Pi.  This month’s stories don’t have much in common, spanning science fiction, fantasy allegory, and Chinese fantasy.    

Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me by John Chu (Short Story, Uncanny Magazine):  This is the story of a man who feels deeply insecure about his body. His body dysmorphia leads him into a self-destructive spiral (which also involves some interesting paramilitary near-future stuff), while his best friend struggles to figure out how and if he can be supportive. There’s not a lot of closure, but I thought it was a very effective emotional story.

Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim (Short Story, Beneath Ceaseless Skies): This is a story about a society of wind-up toys, and also an allegory of human life from beginning to end.  The main character’s life takes several unexpected twists, and we see how different wind-up people respond to unwanted responsibility and adversity in the face of their inevitable mortality. It was a surprisingly touching story, for being about wind-up toys, and it is one that has lingered in my mind long after I finished reading.

That Lingering Sweetness by Tony Pi (Novelette, Beneath Ceaseless Skies): Tony Pi has been writing a series of short fiction about “Candyman Ao”, a man who can call the animals of the Chinese zodiac by making their likenesses in a blown-sugar confection.  This is my favorite one so far.  Ao is generally tasked with solving some sort of problem that involves the supernatural, but this time an illness has robbed him of his candy-making abilities. His weakness forces him to rely on the strengths of the people around him, and I enjoyed seeing how everyone’s humble abilities fit together to solve the problem. I don’t think not having read the previous stories would hurt anyone’s enjoyment of this clever novelette, but I will go ahead and link here to Tony Pi’s list of the series. All of the stories are available to read online.  

Friday, September 8, 2017

Read-Along: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey, Part 1

It’s time for another read-along!  This time, I’m joining the in-progress reading of James S.A. Corey’s “The Expanse”.  I’d already read and reviewed the first three books: here, here, and here.  Now we’re going to read Cibola Burn book four of the series.  The schedule will be as follows:

Week 1: Prologue to Chapter 12, Friday 8th September, hosted by Over The Effing Rainbow
Week 2: Chapters 13 to 27, Friday 15th September, hosted by There's Always Room For One More
Week 3: Chapters 28 to 42, Friday 22nd September, hosted by The Illustrated Page
Week 4: Chapters 43 to End, Friday 29th September, hosted by Tethyan Books

As you can see, this week’s questions cover through chapter twelve, and are provided by Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow. Beware of spoilers below! I’ve been listening by audiobook, so I’ve already read a little in advance to hedge for not being able to keep up (my commute is not that long).  I’m trying very hard to keep everything straight, so that I don’t accidentally let any extra spoilers slip.

1. Bobbie Draper is back! Though we don't get much more than a re-intro scene with her in this section ... Any thoughts on what form her role in this book might take?
It was great to see her again!  I felt a bit bad for the beggar that she humiliated (I think the specific stories are usually false, the real story is simply “I need help”), but I can see how his claiming to be a veteran hit a nerve.  I really don’t see how she’s going to be involved, since she’s apparently not going to the new planet.  I hope we get to see more of her!  

2. We also get to see Havelock again, and in a larger role than before, as we're set up with a colonisation/(another) 'evil' corporation story this time. How do you feel about those kinds of stories? Does this one grab you, and what are your thoughts on Havelock's role in particular?

Hah, I didn't remember him at all until you said that.  He was Miller's partner back in the first book, right?  I don't remember much about him except that he was an Earther.  Since Havelock’s on the ship, I don’t really see yet how he’s going to be involved.  I hope this doesn’t devolve to ships shooting at the surface.

I’m not necessarily seeing this as an evil corporation story, though I’m not averse to them. Corporations are often evil, after all--capitalism is not a particularly good moral structure.  In this case, however, it seems like the corporation was trying to do everything right and proper. They seem to have been planning to work with the illegal colonists as well, given that they hired them to build the landing platform. The security team, on the other hand...

3. We're given perspective on both sides of the battlefield here, as it were - not only with the colony vs. Murtry and his goons, but with the teams of scientists (and Elvi as a new POV character) who are there for their own reasons. What were your first impressions of Elvi, and your thoughts on the general attitude of the scientists present?

I like Elvi.  She seems naive, but well-meaning and competent at the same time.  I felt bad for her when she was trying to get the colonists to limit their impact on the planet.  She was not a politician, but she stepped into a political problem.  I’m generally positively biased towards scientist characters, though, as long as they don’t fall into the old “mad scientist” trope.

4. Once again, Holden appears to have the crappy end of the stick, trying to mediate between these two sides. Do you think Avasarala is setting him up, expecting failure, or is there some way he can actually make this work...?

I’m not sure anyone knows what will happen out there.  I think Fred and Avasarala wanted him because he’s famous, so it would be hard for either side to kill him, and because he’s known for being super transparent.  I’m not sure if they expect him to succeed, or if they just need him to buy time while they push forward some more devious plans.

On a final note, I feel like I should mention our other viewpoint character, Basia.  I feel a little bad for him, because he’s in way over his head.  I’m glad we have his perspective, because we can know for sure that he genuinely never intended to hurt anyone.  He just sorely misjudged his comrades, and now I can’t see a way this will go well for him in the end.  I hope he at least chills out enough to let Felcia go to college.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: Borderline by Mishell Baker

Borderline by Mishell Baker
Published: Saga Press, 2016
Series: Book 1 of the Arcadia Project
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Tiptree, and World Fantasy Awards

The Book:

A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she's sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.

For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she'll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble's disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.” ~WWEnd.com

This is the first book I’ve read by Mishell Baker, and I actually got this copy at the Michigan ConFusion Convention, where I even got to see her in some panels!  She seems like an interesting person.

My Thoughts:

In broad strokes, Borderline hits a lot of tropes I associate with the fairy-based urban fantasies, but there are also some things that cause it to stand apart.  The general premise seems quite familiar, following a young human heroine who sparks the interest of the fey, and who is recruited by a secret organization to work sort of like a detective.  The heroine, Millie, breaks the usual mold, though.  Rather than being especially appealing to the fey, the metal in her body has made her an embodiment of their childhood boogeyman.  Millie suffers from borderline personality disorder, and her failed suicide attempt has destroyed her career as a director and left her with two leg prostheses. I thought that her voice seemed very human (disclaimer: I have no experience with BPD or leg prostheses), and I appreciated her frankness about the difficulties her injuries and mental illness cause in her daily life. I think that seeing the world from her perspective--and seeing her awareness of how BPD affects her responses--makes it easy to empathize with her.    

Despite the presence of magic, a parallel world, and fairies, this is not the kind of story where anything can be wished better.  Choices have real, and sometimes permanent, consequences, and there’s no guarantee that everything will work out in the end. Millie, her colleagues at the Arcadia Project, and the even the showfolk and fairies all have flaws or weaknesses that can be exploited. Luckily, the people at the Arcadia Project are also quite competent, and Millie is a highly intelligent protagonist.  This combination makes for an unpredictable and tense story. I genuinely didn’t know whether Millie would solve the case successfully, and whether or not everyone would make it through alive.  In case it is not clear, I loved that about the book, and I loved that the decisions the characters made carried real weight.

Millie starts with what should be a routine assignment, but which turns into a progressively more complicated and dangerous case.  It was a satisfyingly twisty mystery, and I enjoyed watching from behind Millie’s eyes as she worked to unravel the many threads. The supernatural parts of the world were revealed and explained fairly slowly, and I think there’s still plenty to learn about how things work in the sequels.  This first novel does tell a complete story, but it’s also clear that this is the start of a series. While novel establishes the premise of the Arcadia Project and its work with respect to the local fairies, I get the sense that this series is going to be more serial than episodic. Thus, it’s probably a series that should be read in order.  I think I’ll probably continue with this story, and see what’s next in store for Millie.  
My Rating: 4.5 / 5

Borderline is the highly entertaining first novel of an urban fantasy series, which features fairies from a parallel world and the realities of Hollywood in this one.  The main character, Millie, is a talented and driven young woman with a fascinating personality, who is recruited by a secret organization that manages relations between the parallel world and ours.  She begins the novel in a pretty dark place, and soon throws herself into a dangerous case that becomes increasingly complex.  The story was pretty suspenseful, and I liked that the characters were allowed to fail in meaningful ways.  The next book in the series, Phantom Pains, is already out, and I’m planning to get to it at some point!